Can Apple Survive?
Monday, April 21, 1997 by Dave Winer.
I'm off to New York in a few hours for the Seybold publishing show. It's going to be fun! We're doing a DaveNet Live on Wednesday night. I'm on the closing panel on Thursday, summarizing what happened at the show and looking forward to the September show in San Francisco. And tomorrow at 4PM I'm moderating a panel entitled Can Apple Survive?
In the past, Apple has been the key hardware vendor selling to the Seybold community. It was the Macintosh that made the desktop publishing revolution possible in the mid-late 80s, when the PC platform was stuck at 640K with no plug and play, and a single monitor.
The Can Apple Survive? question has been asked before at Seybold. It's the question everyone wants answered about Apple, always has been, going back to 1981 when IBM shipped its first PC.
Last Friday Lee Gomes reported in the Wall Street Journal that Apple has hired an investment banking firm to fight off unwelcome bids to buy a majority of its stock.
Gomes talked with Oracle chairman Larry Ellison, and apparently Steve Jobs (he wasn't quoted in the piece) and we learned that Ellison is serious, and that Jobs is distancing himself from Ellison (good idea).
Apple is up for grabs. It's possible that the stock play will be happening while we're discussing Apple's future tomorrow.
So, can Apple survive? Let's talk about it...
Having been an Apple-watcher for many years, I believe the cultural problem at Apple has been its insistence on solving every problem itself and relegating the developers to the fringes.
"It's a third party opportunity!" was an awful joke in the halls of One Infinite Loop for many years, meaning "It's too small a thing to interest creative people such as ourselves." As a developer myself I've always rebelled against such positioning.
Looking at the schedule for Apple's mid-May developer conference, I see little evidence of change. When they talk about the future of the Internet on Apple platforms they talk about WebObjects. Huh? I feel a disconnect here. They talk about Java as if it were a panacea, when most Java programmers are totally uncomfortable with the worldwide web, which is the phenomenon that's making the net happen, and is the biggest growth opportunity for the Mac platform.
The truth is, as it always has been, that the competitive stuff is happening outside Apple. When people look at the balance sheet of Apple and conclude that the Mac has no future, they're missing this point.
Today, the powerful Mac developers are in a holding pattern. Apple took a big turn in December, already four months ago, and there's been almost no communication from Apple to developers. We keep shipping new software, as if what we are doing mattered, but given the financial news, and the lack of clear direction from Apple, we don't know if the new software is relevant! I'm sure many Mac users are equally befuddled.
I've also spoken with some of the people thinking about buying Apple and they've asked questions. I've said, over and over, the power is with the developers. But people can't seem to hear this. I wonder why? It's one of life's puzzles, I guess.
So, if Larry Ellison, or someone else, wants to buy Apple, here's my advice.
First, get the top 20 developers together before WWDC for a sit-down and make some deals. Bring a checkbook and your lawyers. Listen to what they want to do. Get committments from the developers with ship dates, and guaranteed parity for the Mac platform. And commit to staying out of their markets.
Position Apple as a computer company, not a software company. Remember, it's called Apple Computer, not Apple Innovation or Apple PDAs. Narrow the product line to three recognizable form factors that you can manufacture in great quantity with great quality. Sell performance and reliability and great software from the developers you made deals with.
Complete System 8 and Rhapsody, and commit to no more than that. Bug fixes and performance improvements. Cancel WebObjects, it's too confusing, grabs too much of the spotlight from the developer community, and it represents an insignificant revenue opportunity for a company as large as Apple. This will force Apple to look outside for web solutions, a good thing for a company that's inclined to look inward.
License the Mac OS cheaply to clone makers. Look to differentiate your product with software you license from developers. The truth -- most of the value is out of the Mac OS. To charge a premium for it now defeats the purpose of having a separate platform. We all must get in line on this one and agree that we want lots of Macs from anyone, not a small number of Macs just from Apple. If that's how it plays out, the Mac loses all its remaining developer energy.
Make a deal with Metrowerks. I want the Mac APIs to build native Rhapsody apps, and Metrowerks can do that. Apple (i.e. Next) must get out of Metrowerks' way. We know Metrowerks, we have long-term relationships with them, we do deals with them all the time. We don't know the Next guys. I trust Metrowerks to stay out of our way, to keep the path forward smooth. With such a deal, Apple can afford to quiet down about Rhapsody until it's available. The market needs this quiet, very much!
Make Apple a marketing and customer support company. That's the lesson IBM learned. It's working for IBM because they focused on understanding the market and shooting products into reality, not by creating technical visions and getting users and developers to buy into their dreams. The computer industry is really simple, as long as you don't carry the burden of trying to re-invent it. Apple has carried this burden, inelegantly, for far too long. That's why it's in so much trouble. Let the users lead. They can teach you what to sell and how to sell it.
Buy a song! Aretha has some good ones. Teach the Mac community to have fun again. Start by setting an example. I don't want Jobs or Amelio on stage, Steve's software ideas are frozen in the mid-80s, and Amelio will never understand the PC business. We need someone on stage who can leave room for developers to tell a dozen different stories about the Macintosh. A master of ceremonies, not a visionary, but a lover of diversity. The platform can be so much more than Apple can imagine. They've been in the way, and yes, even after all the layoffs and shrinking sales, they're *still* in the way.
Finally, Apple must give up competing with Microsoft. It was possible quite a few years ago, but now Microsoft is a juggernaut and Apple is lost in space, trying to find its way back home; but home doesn't exist anymore.
Microsoft is employing some of the best Mac developers, and they're working on Mac software. In that is the basis for some kind of peace. Teach Mac users to respect Windows. Hey, some of their best friends use Windows now. And websites are just LANs. The old animosity isn't serving anyone, especially not Apple.
The old Apple is gone forever. The DOS command line, once the differentiator, is gone too. More change is necessary for people at Apple who are exhausted by change. It's best to do it all at once, get on a solid path forward and never look back.
Apple owns one of the most recognized trademarks in the world, with millions of users, and lots of creative developers. So, yes, Apple can survive, but from here it will require discipline and clear positioning. It's going to require more guile and subtlety for Apple to find a way forward. There aren't any easy answers left.
See you in New York!
PS: As usual, when I write about Apple, it's about net-effect. There are good people at Apple, people who listen and respond. But the publicly stated priorities for WWDC tell the net-effect story. Apple, like all large companies, is just a ouija board.
PPS: Ouija is a trademark for a device consisting of a planchette and a board bearing the alphabet and various other symbols, used in spiritualistic seances, supposedly to convey and record messages from the spirits.
PPPS: If Sun is such a good friend to the Mac, how come they don't use Macs at JavaSoft?