If panache was enough to guarantee success in the IT world, Appledea, but why does the corporate market still elude it? would be the world's largest manufacturer of personal computers. But it is not.
Apple is experiencing one of those traumas that regularly afflict IT companies.
It has dropped the handheld Newton machine after five fruitless years of development and restored co-founder Steve Jobs to the position of CEO.
The vendor is attempting to break into the consumer market and is promising a range of desktop releases in the near future. Most recently, it has announced it will drop its much-vaunted Rhapsody operating system in favour of one based on the MacOS which offers a measure of backward compatibility.
Twisting and turning over the years in both technological and business terms, Apple has managed to keep hold of an extremely loyal user base in certain market segments. But the corporate market has always eluded it.
IBM, Compaq and a host of imitators with Intel-based hardware, and Microsoft, with its operating environment, have seized the bulk of the corporate market while Apple remains confined to a few ghettos within the business community.
On the face of it, Apple had every chance to be a major player in the field. More than any other company, it defined the microcomputer revolution, recognising long before IBM and Microsoft even existed that personal computers could have a huge role to play. What distinguished Apple from the rest was that founders Jobs and Steve Wozniak realised users needed a more friendly interface. Both had worked for Xerox, which had developed the graphical user interface (GUI) but failed to exploit it commercially.
Apple had succeeded where Xerox had failed and its GUI captured the hearts and minds of a generation of users.
But when the IBM PC arrived in 1981, followed closely by the compatible suppliers, Apple was almost swamped by the tide. Within a year IBM had taken control of the market. These days, Apple still retains its loyal user base but finds it difficult to win customers outside its niches of graphic design and education.
For more than 10 years, the vendor struggled ceaselessly against the tide of IBM and clone dominance. Unable to beat its arch rival, in 1994 it formed an alliance with IBM and Apple's own chip supplier, Motorola, to develop systems based on a new chip, the PowerPC.
The three companies had a common aim - to beat off Microsoft and Intel - and decided the PowerPC Risc chip would help them do it. Apple's PowerPC hardware, the PowerMac, was able to run Mac software and any programs developed for the PowerPC chip. And by using the SoftWindows emulation package from software developer Insignia, the Mac would also be able to run DOS and Windows applications.
For a PC vendor to survive, it must attract application developers willing to port their products to its machines. It helps if there is a killer application, a product so popular that it fuels the demand for hardware and forces up sales. Lotus 1-2-3 proved such a product in the early days of the PC and made Lotus a fortune. But Apple never had a killer application except in its niche market of desktop publishing and design.
If no killer application appears, the next best thing is to persuade as many developers as possible to port to your environment. But software developers are unlikely to take a chance unless there is a degree of stability in the vendor's operating systems strategy. This may explain why Apple has decided to abandon the operating system development it codenamed Rhapsody in favour of a continuation of System 7 into System 8.
Porting applications to Rhapsody was no easy task. It involved writing to different sets of application program interfaces (APIs) to take advantage of some extra features of the environment. The danger for Apple was that even its most loyal developers would find the process too complex and costly and would opt for the Wintel environment instead.
In 1993, with its usual flair and optimism, Apple entered the personal digital assistant (PDA) market. The Newton had its own operating system and a pen device for data entry. Apple dreamed of a mass market for the Newton and others foresaw a healthy future. US analysts predicted that three million Newtons would be sold in 1995 and 1996.
Other vendors followed Apple's example. Microsoft began developing a pen-based version of Windows while IBM signed up with US company Go to develop a similar product. Olivetti and AT&T also saw a future in the devices and began joint development of a PDA, as did Amstrad.
But by 1994, Olivetti and AT&T had pulled out of the business, soon to be followed by Amstrad. IBM released a product called Simon, which was basically a mobile phone with some data communications facilities, but left sales of the device to a US partner. Microsoft's Pen Windows quietly disappeared in the giant maw of the development labs from which it has never emerged. Apple managed to license the Newton technology to a number of companies, including Toshiba, Siemens, Alcatel, Sharp, Motorola and Panasonic. But Toshiba, one of the market leaders in portable computing, never produced its own PDA. To all intents and purposes, Apple stood alone as the standard bearer for pen-based computing.
Apple's decision to drop the Newton earlier this year created a storm of protest among a small group of devoted software developers, users and dealers. About 100 people turned up to demonstrate outside Apple's Californian headquarters in March, demanding Apple reverse its decision, sell the Newton to another handheld supplier or put the operating system in the public domain.
The company's mistake was to believe its own propaganda. Instead of recognising PDAs were a niche product for which vertical market applications would have to be developed, it marketed the Newton through its normal channels.
The company has now turned to the consumer market with a desktop machine aimed at home users. The iMac, complete with its Space Age look and a translucent turquoise and grey case, is designed to appeal to the games-driven market. But its $1,300 price tag is considerably more expensive than comparable Intel-based PCs which are now retailing at less than $1,000.
Apple claims that because the iMac is based on the latest version of the PowerPC, optimised for graphics, it outperforms its rivals in processing speed. Unlike the consumer PC, the iMac's price includes monitor and keyboard.
The news that Apple had launched the machine caused its share price to break the $30 barrier.
But the consumer market is notoriously tough for manufacturers and retailers alike, with fiercely competitive pricing and low profit margins, and Apple will have a fight on its hands. It is also slugging it out with the Wintel camp in the education market, one of the sectors in which it has a measure of success. In 1996, the vendor set up a company with Acorn, a long-standing player in the education field. The joint venture, Xemplar, sells Apple and Acorn Risc-based systems to primary and secondary schools, while Apple concentrates on the further and higher education markets.
Paul Burnham, senior research analyst at Romtec, believes that Apple's chameleon-like strategy has done it no favours in terms of winning markets.
'The decision to drop the Newton has probably alienated a lot of developers that could have helped Apple win market share,' he says.
He also questions the timing and marketing advantage of the iMac: 'It looks like a revolutionary design and may be what Apple needs to attract customers, but it seems an odd time of year to launch into the consumer sector. Breaking into the home market means having games software available and there is very little available for the Mac.'
Burnham is sceptical of Apple's chances of breaking into the corporate market beyond its departmental niches. 'Apple is flogging a dead horse trying to break into the corporate sector,' he says. 'It would do better to concentrate on those areas where it is already strong - design and DTP. At times it is making noises like an extremely desperate company, despite the fact that it has some excellent products and G3 sales are going extremely well.'
Apple's fate in the corporate market seems to have been sealed in 1981, with the concept of PC plug compatibility which established DOS and Intel as standards. Bob Heller points out in his book, The Fate of IBM, that for Apple, the standard was a disaster. 'Thousands of programs had been written and millions sold for the Apple II (the original Apple computer) which was neither compatible nor capable of fighting the IBM PC for the corporate market. It was a market of which Steve Jobs knew little and nobody else at Apple knew much more.'
This lack of understanding of the corporate market was one of the main reasons for bringing in John Sculley in 1985. Sculley altered Apple's product-based marketing and concentrated on three markets - education, consumer and corporate. But Heller believes the company faced an uphill struggle, even under Sculley.
'Of the three, the corporate market was by far the most valuable prize and the most difficult for Apple,' Heller says. 'The buyers were intrinsically hostile. The information systems managers who place the fat corporate orders hadn't liked the way in which Jobs promoted the technological wonders of his computers.'
Thirteen years later, Jobs is once again at the head of Apple and has perhaps acquired greater maturity in the intervening years. But such a transformation seems unlikely. Jobs has always been arrogant - some might argue justifiably so. After being ousted by Sculley, he went on to found NeXt, which was hailed by many observers as capable of producing another technological breakthrough to rank alongside the Mac.
But even if Jobs has changed, the corporate market probably has not. Corporate buyers prefer IBM's conservatism to the flair and independence of Apple. The mixed messages emerging from the company over the future of its operating system, the ditching of the Newton and the current emphasis on the consumer market will do little to reassure the corporate customers that Apple is a serious contender.
If Apple could find a way of marrying the flair of Jobs and his designers with the corporate skills of someone like IBM's CEO, Lou Gerstner, it might stand a chance in the corporate market.
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