Safari: An example of what Apple should focus on

I have been following Dave Hyatt’s work (and blog) for a few years now and I have to admit that I am very happy to see people like him and Dominic Giampaolo and Avie Tevanian work for Apple.

One of the my long-time grudges with Apple strategy is that there seems to be none. Despite phenomenal products Apple does not seem to grasp the importance of essence in its marketing campaigns as well as its R&D processes.

Many people have talked about how today’s Apple provides ‘instant satisfaction’, ‘high impact’ experiences to its customers/users, whilst, for the most part, fails to provide adequate support or show the required respect to its customers post-purchase leaving many people perpetually oscillating between being annoyed by Apple’s disrespect for their custom/having a considerable investment in their products/wanting out and getting very excited for a short period after Steve Jobs presents something new in some event/resorting to zealotry to support the platform etc. The same thing can be said about Apple’s stance towards developers: Apple, for better or worse, promised a lot with OS X and has failed to live up to its promise. Not in terms of the existing software, but in terms of the long-term strategy based on which a customer (be it an individual or corporation) would invest in its products.

Apple was criticised by many last year, just after the Panther release for its complete ignorance of Jaguar as far as security and other patches are concerned. This came as a blow to Apple’s attempts to sell its products in the Enterprise environment, where it is standard for OS providers to provide support for at least 5 years after release for a given Operating System version. Apple eventually agreed to provide security patches for Jaguar along with Panther through the Software Update mechanism available in all OS X versions.

However, combining the amateurish support Apple provides for its Operating System releases, with the flamboyant presentations of Jobs, the lack of serious, modern development tools for OS X (when compared with the State of the Art), the contradicting and often mistaken Human Interface Guidelines that Apple likes to violate, increasingly in each release (see sections on the Brushed Metal look and the Custom Controls as examples), the overpriced hardware that’s not even available in bulk outside the U.S.A. and a few of the EU countries, leaves one to wonder whether the success of the iPod and the iTMS means that Apple will eventually drop the Mac and focus on other things before it is completely absorbed by some other company or goes bankrupt.

The problem? Complete lack of any strategy.

If Apple aims to keep a 5% market share it better start rethinking its strategy. Because its ‘ace’ (MacOS X) will start looking less and less ‘flamboyant’ once Longhorn, .NET/mono, (new) Linux Desktops start emerging etc. Back in 2001 there was a lot of excitement about MacOS X. It was promising something never promised before with such credibility: A UNIX Core with the best evolutionary approach to GUI since the original Mac. One would expect that Apple would take advantage of this in a smart way:

1. Create frameworks and infrastructure to lure developers from other platforms. Apple did close to nothing in this area. The API documentation was for a long time merely placeholders and formatted old OpenSTEP pages. The development tools are a joke compared to VS.NET or IntelliJ or Eclipse. The APIs were incomplete and have had many changes since the original release of OS X.

2. Vastly improve on its distribution and sales channels outside the U.S. Apple has by far the worst distribution and sales channel of any major computing company in the world. Some countries are still burdened with privileged Apple dealers (IMCs) that abuse their position and condemn the Mac to minimal and dwindling sales in those areas. Examples in Europe of such countries are Portugal, Iceland and Hellas (Greece).

3. Focus on improving the User Experience in OS X. Apple has done a lot to improve the experience of OS X. But the constant modifications of the GUI widgets and look between 10.0 and 10.3 is token of complete lack of any real strategy or professionalism by Apple: When the Finder is still a very badly written piece of software that chokes whenever a network transfer takes place, cannot provide transparency between different protocols and is slow, why is Apple investing in improving an already good widget set? Most medium-large sized programs Apple is bundling with OS X, including Safari, iChat, Address Book, iPhoto, iTunes and many others are using custom controls that Apple advises against in its own Human Interface Guidelines. It is understandable for Apple to resort to Common Controls, because the standard widget set is not providing the rich experience required by their Apps. They should’ve tried harder to make those Custom Controls, standard.

4. Apple has not provided any ‘modular’ or ‘high-value’ products to the majority of the users in the US and Europe: users without large expertise in computer systems, but enough experience to want a computer that is upgradeable or simply, that has no built in screen but can connect to standard VGA/DVI-equipped monitors. Sure, there’s always the Powermac, but how about an iMac without the built-in TFT along with the iMac we all know and love. I am sure many more would opt for a machine like that and many would even get an Apple Display with it too.

5. An Enterprise strategy that matches Apples consumer offerings. It’s got the technology. It’s got the money. Heck, it even has the hardware. Why not expand its offerings and Enterprise division to cope with the times? Why not leverage its GUI expertise to provide unmatched server administration tools; OS X 10.3 Server is quite good, but still nothing exceptional and more to the point nothing that justifies its price, unless there is an installation of Mac workstations in which case it might make sense. But I am sure there aren’t many such cases.

Apple seems to have realised some of the above. Just yesterday Tevanian announced a slowing down of the release cycle for new OS X versions, hopefully implying increased value with new versions of OS X. It will take more than a fancy presentation by Steve, a toy application of Quartz Extreme’s capabilities (Exposé) and some iApps to be able to survive after the Longhorn onslaught, despite Microsoft’s inability to do anything right the first time. It has been rumoured that it might drop the proprietary Display Connector.

A move in the right direction, is Apple’s and Hyatt’s work on Safari. In this blog entry, Hyatt provides a view into the internals of the HTML rendering process in Safari. Work that lays a foundation upon which companies like Omnigroup and others can build applications making use of OS X’s frameworks.

The HP partnership is also a good sign. As would be an enterprise partnership with IBM. Even in the consumer domain, Apple could show its commitment to its customers by providing products with higher value: a simple replaceable battery for iPods would be an easy start.

If Apple provided better development tools, frameworks and infrastructure to its developers instead of flashy apps and colourful icons, more options in its product offerings, more mature marketing and a well-thought enterprise solution, I am sure it would cease to be a testing ground for Microsoft’s next generation OS experience and a brainless sleeping-giant trying all sorts of different things so as not to disappear and would have become the true major player it still thinks it is.

With the help and work of the aforementioned people, I think it just might do that.

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