Apple continues to drag computer industry forward

First published in Business in Vancouver, August 28, 2001, Issue #618, The high-tech office column


Apple continues to drag computer industry forward

The very first piece I published in BIV, back in June 1992, was titled How the mighty Macintosh became the Betamax of the computer world. Well, somehow, the mighty Macintosh and Apple are still around and, from time to time, still subject to press reports of their imminent demise.

Last time around, the return of Apple founder Steve Jobs and the release of popular Imac and Ibook hardware were credited with bringing the company back from the brink.

But that's old news. And with e-com companies shutting down and PC sales stagnant, how's Apple doing? Despite continued strength in the graphics and publishing and education markets, Apple hangs onto just four per cent to five per cent of the overall computer market.

Is it time to bring back the death watch?

This July, some 400 vendors joined Apple for the semi-annual Macworld show attended by more than 60,000 Mac users. The lineup for Steve Jobs' 9 a.m. keynote started at 1 a.m. This time around, however, Jobs was tired and short-tempered, at one point throwing a misbehaving digital camera at a technician. Hardware introduced offered more speed, but otherwise little new, and the new software packages demonstrated all included a statement: "It'll be ready in a couple of months."

The faithful were disappointed.

None of this, however, should be taken as signs that it's time to count Apple out. After all, it's a bit much to expect even Steve Jobs, Superstar to produce an exciting new piece of hardware or software every six months, on schedule for the Macworld keynotes.

And Apple, the only one of the first-generation personal computer manufacturers to still be in business, continues to have an influence far greater than its market share would indicate.

The company's biggest asset is its customer base, which is far more loyal than that of say, Dell or Compaq. Many Mac customers refer to themselves as "Mac people" and can't imagine using any other computer. Mac users tend to hang onto their computers longer than PC users and are more likely to buy a range of add-on software and gadgets. (And to pay more for their toys.)

And while Apple software and hardware has borrowed from PC standards just as Microsoft has patterned Windows on the Macintosh, Apple continues to set the pace for the rest of the computer industry. Some recent examples:

n USB. Though first introduced on PCs, it was only when Apple made it the standard way to add hardware to its Imacs that USB gadgets became widely available.

n Firewire. Mac users are the first to widely use this high-speed connection standard.

n Wireless networking. Again, the 802.11b standard was available for PCs, but was expensive and rarely used until Apple popularized its affordable Airport networking. A series of Airport base stations blanketed July's Macworld show and lots of the Mac faithful brought their notebooks to connect in.

n Unix. While industrial-strength operating systems such as Linux have long been available for PCs, they have required a level of technical skill that has kept them from mass acceptance. Mac's new Unix-based OS X, while still with some version 1.0 rough edges, is poised to become the first mass market version of this powerful technology.

n The "digital hub." Apple's vision remains focused on the personal computer, now as an easy-to-use way to connect digital cameras, music players, PDAs, CD-burners and more.

n Style. In introducing the Imac, Jobs compared it to the Swatch -- a fun, colourful consumer product. PC makers are still finding it hard to break away from their plain-beige boxes.

Although it has just a fraction of the market, Apple continues to push the rest of the industry forward.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan