Apple takes a pass on the enterprise prize

For the first time in decades, Apple has a chance to compete in the corporate computing marketplace. But does the company have the chops to take on Microsoft?

It's the unofficial motto of the lottery industry: You've got to play to win. A couple of decades ago, the vast majority of microcomputer companies realized that the jackpot was in sales of computers to businesses. Apple opted not to play, and as a result, it had a troubled history throughout most of the 1990s.

Now, for the first time since the Mac was introduced in 1984, Apple has a real opportunity to play to win by focusing some of its resources on selling computers to large corporations. Apple isn't a large company, however, and it's headed in an entirely different direction, transforming itself from a consumer computer company to a consumer electronics company. But is that truly the right move for Apple? It might be, but it's not without risk. And it may mean passing up a golden opportunity.

A small window

Don't believe the siren song emanating from Microsoft, about how well Vista is doing. It's not doing all that well. That doesn't mean Microsoft is in trouble long term, because as things stand now, Vista (and its mildly improved derivatives) will eventually take over the Windows marketplace and wind up being the largest selling version of Windows ever.

But there's a brief period of time, a year, perhaps 18 months, when a determined competitor with a better operating system and a more customer-focused strategy might be able to gain a toehold among corporate computer buyers.

It's not just the fact that Vista requires powerful hardware and has received a mixed reception that threatens Windows' dominance. A small but growing number of IT pros have begun questioning Microsoft's understanding of and commitment to their needs. The software giant's increasingly self-serving policies, its obsession with software piracy, its inability to create a reliable desktop environment, and the constant need to upgrade software and hardware to keep pace with newer versions of Windows are wearing down the patience of its customer base.

That gives Apple an opening. And on the desktop, the Macintosh offers a combination that no other alternative does:

1. Mac OS X's FreeBSD roots provide a level of reliability matched by no version of Windows and no previous version of the Mac. In other words, it's nearly as reliable as Linux. The improved reliability and the fact that malware is targeted at Windows machines means reduced help desk calls and longer life spans for purchased Mac units.

2. On top of that, OS X has a rich user interface that is familiar to both Mac and Windows users, since Windows and the Mac use virtually all the same underlying UI techniques.

Groundwork laid, but where's Apple now?

Apple's current opportunity in the corporate marketplace is the direct result of its brilliant work in designing the best-of-breed desktop operating system back in 2001 when it introduced Mac OS X 10.0. More than six years and two versions of Microsoft's Windows later, OS X is still the desktop operating system state of the art. OS X has also revitalized the Mac software marketplace (despite Apple's poor showing in supporting independent software vendors).

Last year's switch to an Intel-based architecture capped off a long series of moves by Apple -- including aggressive and inexpensive updates of OS X, much better interoperability on Windows networks and the release of the Boot Camp software for booting Windows on a Mac -- that have prepared the company to make a run at large corporations.

But since then, the focus has been on the iPhone and new iPods. Apple even pushed back the release of OS X 10.5 Leopard for that purpose. Cupertino shows no signs of pursuing a serious strategy to grow corporate sales.

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