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How OS X Could Rescue the PC Biz

By Charles Haddad If 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche were alive today, would he declare the PC dead -- as he did God in the late 1800s? He'd certainly have a good case. For the most part, developers have been cranking out me-too software in the past several years. No wonder PC sales have collapsed. The machine Bill Gates and his fellow techies once declared would save us all has become a bore.

Yet all is not lost. I see a glimmer of promise in Apple's throbbing blue OS X. At last, here's an exciting new operating system, harnessing the vast power and stability of UNIX for the humble desktop. OS X should inspire willing developers to once again invent new and exciting uses for the Mac. And that, in turn, should spur innovation by their Windows competitors.

I say "should" because it has been a struggle to excite developers about OS X. They've moved through three stages. The first was denial: Developers balked at the idea of having to learn yet another set of programming tools -- especially for an unproven OS. Heck, they wondered, wasn't the battle over operating systems kaput, with Microsoft the clear winner?

WHAT HASN'T BEEN DONE? Stage 2 marked begrudging acceptance. The big developers agreed to crank out OS X versions of current software biggies such as Office and Quicken. That's important, but really, this stage was a yawner. It hardly does justice to the power of OS X. Office, for example, doesn't tap into OS X's services feature. Accessible from the top menu bar, services lets you add and use functions -- such stripping out e-mail formatting or grabbing text -- across your programs.

Now, I see the first signs of Stage 3. Developers are asking themselves: What can be done with OS X that hasn't been done before? Right now, small developers with little to lose are mostly asking this question. Among them are companies such as Karelia, which has written an OS X search engine that uses the Internet to quickly look up and remember for you everything from local movie and TV listings to breaking news on stocks and companies.

Then there's Creo's Six Degrees, a program that automatically gathers all the e-mail, files, and contacts associated with a project in one place. It removes the necessity to search for various items, and the information is updated in real time.

BESTING APPLE. Such innovations are already catching Gates's eye. Once again, he's lashing his hordes of developers to not only imitate OS X but innovate beyond it as well. And that's unleashing a creative race, the likes of which hasn't been seen since the early 1990s. Back then, Gates took a look at the original Mac operating system and told his developers to make him one of those, too. They twisted and tweaked Microsoft's DOS operating system into Windows.

It wasn't just imitation. At times, Microsoft bested Apple, adding new ideas such as the Start menu, contextual menus, and a two-button mouse. But Apple, because of internal struggles over its direction, lost its will to innovate in the late 1990s. And Microsoft felt free to ignore Apple. No longer.

Now, a home-video editor is a must-have for Windows, too. It's called Windows Movie Maker and, my, doesn't it work a lot like Apple's iMovie software? And then there's Windows Media Player. Not only does it let you tune in Internet radio stations and copy music from your CDs, it even gives you the option of psychedelic tie-dye visuals, just like Apple's iTunes.

VITAL RETREADS. Not all these Microsoft knock-offs are quite so shameless. In particular, Media Player includes a few touches that Apple can't ignore. For one, Microsoft developed Media Player as a hybrid, combining the best features of Apple's QuickTime media player, iDVD burner, and iTunes into one piece of software. With Media Player, you can listen to music, import tracks, and watch videos -- all at the same time, in the same place. Not a bad idea at all.

And here's an in-your-face move: Microsoft has even developed an OS X version of Media Player for the Mac. Apple doesn't have a Windows version of iMovie or iTunes, although QuickTime has had a PC version almost since its inception.

While most Macophiles scoff at such Microsoft retreads, I'm glad to see them. They offer competition that spurs Apple to stay on its toes. Jobs & Co. has to keep innovating to differentiate itself. Otherwise, the Big Daddy of computing, a.k.a. Microsoft, will imitate Apple out of existence.

HEALTHY RIVALRY. That's what nearly happened in the late 1990s, when Apple became too enamored of its own brilliance. It forgot that today's innovation quickly becomes tomorrow's taken-for-granted convenience.

Yes, a rivalry between Apple and Microsoft is good. It will prevent a modern-day Nietzsche from rightly declaring that the PC died from a terminal case of boredom. Haddad, Atlanta-based correspondent for BusinessWeek, is a long-time Apple Computer buff. Follow his weekly Byte of the Apple column, only on BusinessWeek Online

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