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5 ways Steve Jobs' absence isn't all bad for Apple

February 9, 2009 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Even a cursory review of Apple's history makes it clear that Steve Jobs has been instrumental to its success in both tours of duty. And whatever Jobs may be battling during his leave of absence, one can only hope he returns, hale and vigorous. His unbending vision has led the company to win after win.

But does that mean Apple is in trouble without him? No. In fact, Jobs or no Jobs, several opportunities exist for Apple. Here are five:

1. Deliver a lower-cost, netbook-style Mac. The pudgy, last-generation, $999 MacBook is the closest thing Apple has had to a $500 netbook. Although rumored for months, it's not clear whether Apple is building a netbook, but the time would be right. Snow Leopard, the next version of OS X, is a performance overhaul of the OS X core software. A streamlined Mac OS is precisely what you'd need to run a Mac netbook. If it happens this year, it was Jobs' initiative.

2. Foster and support independent software vendors. OS X has gone a long way toward attracting software makers to develop apps for the Macintosh. And the slowly increasing (though still small) market share for desktop Macs should help too. But Apple has had a checkered past when it comes to supporting ISVs. It could and should do more to help software makers succeed.

3. Be a lot more transparent with customers and the press. Jobs' amazing "whisper" campaigns controlled the reveal. He's a master showman who understands how to work the media and whip his audience into a frenzy. When Apple was a small company with a lot to prove, those talents were a huge asset. But Apple no longer needs to tantalize and surprise. It needs to solidify its customer base. Not everything needs to be a secret. In fact, a little more transparency would win Apple more friends.

4. Sell Macs to enterprise customers. This is the most challenging opportunity, with the largest potential. Apple has never sold many computers to enterprise customers. (It's tough to do that when you're not even trying.) For years, Apple lacked cost-competitive products for typical business users. But the new MacBook and the MacBook Air meet those requirements.

So, it's a funny thing. Apple finally has price-competitive products and interest from enterprise customers, but its hush-hush enterprise division -- I call them the "Men in Black" -- would make Howard Hughes proud. Something (or someone?) is holding it back.

To court IT, Apple would need to reveal product road maps and stop being so secretive -- but that's what nondisclosure agreements are for. It would have to add layers, such as engineering sales support, and provide business-class repair turnarounds. And it has made strides in those directions.

Apple doesn't have to change its identity to deal with large business customers. It doesn't have to use HP's or Dell's model. Apple could do this in its own way, and at least a modest percentage of IT customers would like it. A modest percentage is about all Apple can handle to start with anyway.

5. Get out of that exclusive AT&T deal! There are some AT&T lawyers who might object to this one. Exclusive deals are all the rage in wireless, but Verizon's network is distinctly better. Don't believe me? Check with that famous consumer magazine that prefers not to be named. Based on a survey of over 50,000 readers, it reported that Verizon had the best service in all but two major U.S. metropolitan areas. Maybe while Jobs is away, Apple can figure out a way to stop punishing its iPhone customers and cut a deal with Verizon.

But don't worry. I'm not holding my breath.

Scot Finnie is Computerworld's editor in chief. Contact him at scot_finnie@computerworld.com.

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