Mac Musings

Not Just Hardware or Software: Apple Is a Solutions Company

Dan Knight - 2003.02.28 - Tip Jar

People who don't understand Apple keep trying to categorize it as a hardware company or a software company. They want to view Apple as a hardware company that makes software to sell its hardware or a software company that makes hardware to run its software.

They're both wrong.

Apple is much more than a software company or a hardware company. Whether we're looking at the old Apple II, Lisa, the entire Macintosh line, the Newtons, or the iPod, Apple creates integrated solutions.

Problem: People wanted personal computers, but they didn't want to be limited by text displays and green (or blue or amber or gray) monitors. Solution: The Apple II supported color and graphics.

Problem: Computers were too hard to use. Programs didn't know how to work together. Solution: The Lisa and its software suite of seven programs designed to work together.

Problem: Nobody could afford Lisa. Solution: The Macintosh reworked the Lisa paradigm The Macintoshat a lower cost. The clipboard let you copy MacPaint artwork to MacWrite articles.

Problem: Limited storage space and incompatible, often flaky third-party solutions. First solution: Apple's 20 MB floppy port hard drive.

Problem: Damn, that's slow! Solution: SCSI.

Problem: There's no BASIC. How can I program my Mac? Solution: HyperCard, which foreshadowed the Web in many ways.

Problem: Hey, the Apple IIGS has great color! What about us Mac users? Solution: The Mac II, which supported up to six monitors at once with up to 8-bit color - 256 colors from a 16 million color palette.

Problem: Laser printers are expensive. Solution: LocalTalk lets Macs share a single printer. This also paves the way for peer-to-peer networking, file servers, and so forth. Macs were the first readily networked personal computers.

Problem: Microsoft Works sucks. Solution: Apple postpones taking on Microsoft until 1990. ClarisWorks 1.0 ships in October 1991. As Bob Hearn notes, "For once, Microsoft had been beaten in the marketplace, in a category in which it had been dominant." And it only got better through ClarisWorks 4.0; since then it's tended to add more bloat than real features.

The list goes on. Apple's solutions included 24-bit accelerated video, CD-ROM drives, OpenTransport to simplify networking, ethernet to displace LocalTalk, USB and FireWire to replace earlier protocols, iTunes for music lovers, iMovie for videophiles, Safari for surfers, and so on.

The hardware got better. The software got better. The solutions got better. While Microsoft concentrates on the software side and a host of different companies build hardware that runs Microsoft Windows, Apple builds "the whole widget" - solutions, not just hardware or software.

Nobody else offers that level of integration in the personal computer market. IBM could have, but they decided to license their OS - and when they did try to create their own (OS/2), they couldn't compete against the juggernaut they had helped create.

Apple can't compete with Microsoft. Or Dell. Or IBM.

They don't have to; they offer a different product. Apple doesn't sell an OS for industry standard hardware or license their OS for clones. They don't support alternate operating systems on their hardware (although they tried once with MkLinux).

What sets Apple apart isn't premium pricing, the ease of use of the classic Mac OS, the stability of OS X, the styling of their hardware, or Steve Jobs' fabled reality distortion field. It's the integration.

You could cobble together a car with the best engine, best transmission, best tires, best seats, best body styling, best stereo, and so forth, but it wouldn't work nearly as well as buying a car where all the parts are designed to work together from the beginning.

Even if Macs don't have the fastest CPUs on the fastest data bus with the fastest graphics card and the fastest hard drive in the best looking box with a SuperDrive that supports all the writable DVD formats, the simple fact is that all of the parts of the Mac are intended to work together when AppleDesigns them. They know the hardware. They know the OS. They know what kind of programs (many of them made by Apple) users are going to run on them.

That is the benefit of Apple making the whole widget. They can make sure that iTunes supports every CD burner they've ever built into a Mac. They can make sure iDVD works with every internal SuperDrive to leave an Apple warehouse.

It's the kind of thinking that propelled the Palm Pilot to incredible success - and helps explain why Palms have become less dominant in the face of other Palm OS hardware (equate them with Macintosh clones) and Pocket PCs (Microsoft's vision of Windows for PDAs).

It's the kind of thinking that created the iPod, the runaway best selling MP3 player.

It's the kind of thinking that will keep Apple alive for decades in a world dominated by Windows computers. And it's the kind of thinking that Apple can push as an advantage as it strives to grow market share from a paltry 3% (3 million units a year). It's one of the strongest Mac advantages.

Growing

To grow in today's market, Apple needs to sell new computers to first-time buyers, to switchers, and to current Mac users - especially those using the classic Mac OS. But they have to push them as solutions, not simply as alternatives.

Problem: Viruses. Solution: Macintosh.

Problem: Windows 95, 98, or Me: Solution: Macintosh OS X.

Problem: Editing digital video. Solution: iMovie.

Problem: Burning CDs or DVDs. Solution: A Mac with iTunes and iDVD.

Problem: Dealing with all those digital photos. Solution: iPhoto.

Problem: Spam. Solution: Mail's ability to learn to identify spam.

Problem: Mac browsing is slow, especially with Internet Explorer. Solution: Safari.

Problem: Older Mac or Windows software. Solution: The classic environment or VirtualPC.

Problem: OS X is sluggish on older hardware. Solution: Newer hardware with faster CPUs, a faster memory bus, faster graphics, Quartz Extreme.

Problem: A very limited budget. Solution: Since Apple seems uninterested in selling an entry-level computer without an integrated display, Low End Mac. We'll help you get the most out of your current hardware, make the right choice when it's time to upgrade, and find the best Mac solution for your needs.

Okay, that doesn't help Apple's bottom line nearly as much as selling a $600 G4 desktop box, but we're much more interested in promoting the Macintosh solution than pushing new hardware as the best answer.

Sometimes a low-end Mac is all you need, whether you're running the classic Mac solution or OS X. And that's the important thing - not hardware or software, but the solution that meets your needs.

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Dan Knight has been using Macs since 1986, sold Macs for several years, supported them for many more years, and has been publishing Low End Mac since April 1997. If you find Dan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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