There are some vendors you tend to expect to appear at the SAN/NAS Summit, and there are those you don’t. Apple is one of the ones you don’t. So when I received an invitation recently to join Apple for “a free seminar on safeguarding your data,” I did a bit of a double take. Apple has caused a lot of double takes in the last three decades. In some ways, the crowning achievement of the 30th anniversary it is celebrating this year is its ability to earn a second look.
In some respects, you could look at Apple and conclude that it hasn’t changed much since 1976. It still has a core following that is dwarfed by Microsoft’s enormous market share position. Its proprietary hardware-OS model remains constant, even as open source upended the idea that such platforms should be hard-wired together. Despite frequent attempts to broaden its installed base, it has never really broken out of its usual vertical markets of education and graphic design. And Steve Jobs is still at the wheel.
Perhaps it is this conservatism in its business practices that makes Apple able to innovate so successfully in so many other areas. It has taken risks in more areas than most companies of its size would dare and attracted more attention for its effort than a firm of any size whatsoever. While HP, Palm and others tried to create a better PDA, Apple came up with the kind of handheld that Sony should have invented. Just as the PC became a commodity, it produced a status symbol with the iMac. At a time when Intel is losing all kinds of business to AMD and IBM, Apple decided to switch to its processors. This is a company that zags every time the rest of the industry zigs.
At the same time, Apple has become more focused. In 1993, it launched 25 products. By 1998 it launched only five products, two of which – the G3 PowerBook and the iMac – were hits.
Apple may be the only firm in the IT industry which, years after its initial success, could launch a “Classic” version of its original design and get kudos for it. It is also among the few that would dare offer a “limited edition” desktop in the form of the (belated) 20th Anniversary Edition Mac in 1997. I’m not even going to try to describe it – find a photograph on Google, and marvel at a vendor that continues to find inspiration long after others kept retouching the same old canvas. That computer, by the way, cost $10,000. In an industry demonically focused on reducing cost, Apple reminds us that you get what you pay for.
It would be a mistake to describe Apple as the alternative to Wintel, because Mac enthusiasts don’t look at it that way at all. For them, it is Apple or nothing, even though no one has developed great games to play on Macs, even though it continues to come up with me-too software that apes Office in a bid to prevent anyone from straying. Microsoft is not an alternative for Mac users, either. It’s Apple or nothing.
Apple doesn’t talk a lot about ROI. Its products aren’t marketed around their interoperability. You don’t even get the impression that customers come first so much as what Apple thinks is best for its customers. What keeps it relevant is the passion of its employees, the inspiration its philosophy of the user experience has given to other firms and its determination to prove that mass production doesn’t automatically translate into a sacrifice in quality. This industry could certainly use another 30 years of that.