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A Rendezvous with Redmond?

By Alex Salkever When Apple first unveiled Rendezvous at Macworld last summer, the crowds went wild. And rightfully so. Steve Jobs and company yet again jumped ahead of the competition with the first mass-market implementation of zero-configuration networking technology -- a program aimed at allowing users to talk to other Rendezvous-enabled machines without manually changing any settings.

True to the Apple (AAPL) mantra, it just worked. Apple demonstrated this with iTunes at the January Macworld. With this new technology, you can walk into a room bearing a laptop running Jaguar (the latest version of the OS X operating system) with a wireless networking (Wi-Fi) card, and instantly see the iTunes music files of everyone else in the room with a similar setup. This application hasn't been released yet, but should be out soon. Still, at the time many Apple observers reacted cautiously. "Cool app, but show me something real and meaty," seemed to be the general feeling.

INSTANT RECOGNITION. Well, the beef has arrived. Over the last few months the ways to use Rendezvous have multiplied impressively. For starters, Apple has enabled a few more of its home-grown applications to talk via Rendezvous. Want to change your printer configuration wirelessly? Apple's speedy new Safari browser will let you do that if your printer is Rendezvous-compatible -- without your having to hunt down a specific IP (Internet protocol) address. Likewise, iChat can instantly recognize the handles of all other Rendezvous-enabled iChat users active on a local area network.

As promised last summer, most of the major printer makers have upgraded their machines to support Rendezvous. Now, if I'm in a meeting and need to print out a document, I can do it from any printer in my office within range of my Wi-Fi card. I don't need to be on the office local area network or logged into any directory software, such as those from Novell (NOVL) or Microsoft (MSFT).

Most important to me, I no longer need to go through the hassle of configuring my computer for printing. This routine normally involves wading through dozens of folders in search of the proper IP addresses for our office printers, a confusing process that has resulted in more than one call to the help desk.

SAVINGS GALORE. In fact, in a perfect Rendezvous world, companies could not only reduce help-desk use but they also could hold down the cost of managing printer and file-sharing servers by using Rendezvous-ready software on the backend. Any changes to those systems get automatically broadcast to every machine on the network. No need for tech support to change settings on each desktop individually -- and another savings of time and money. That's just the tip of the money-saving iceberg -- and it illustrates why businesses should reconsider their PC choices in the next couple of years.

For example, Longmont (Colo.) network storage device maker, Chapparal, has built Rendezvous into its latest version storage-management software. So now the info-tech guy configuring a network to back up its contents to the storage device can do so with zero tweaking. Point, click, configure -- that's all there is to it.

Here's another example: Database outfit Sybase (SY) has built Rendezvous into its client software. This allows authorized Apple machines to log into Sybase databases without any additional configuration -- one less task for a database administrator.

Add enough of these simplifications together, and it becomes hard to refute that running an office network using Rendezvous-equipped Macs will end up costing less than comparable Windows software -- because there really isn't any. With Windows, you still need a file server and a print server, with Rendezvous and Apple you don't.

YOUR MAC IS RINGING. What's really exciting, though, are the kinds of under-the-radar applications that could really change the way business works. According to folks inside Apple's Rendezvous development program, a prominent maker of 3-D rendering software will release a new version of its product with Rendezvous compatibility. Aside from allowing graphics geeks to share images and information, the software will have the ability to check CPU (central processing unit) usage on other Rendezvous-enabled machines around the office -- and send intensive tasks to the computer currently handling the lightest workload. It's a form of distributed computing with no middleman required.

That's a use for Rendezvous no one had thought of before. Here's another idea that crossed my mind. How about using Rendezvous to power local-phone traffic inside a midsize office? Get rid of the wires. Use cheap voice-over-IP phones plugged into Macs equipped with Wi-Fi cards. No more need for inside plant specialists to check wiring or string cables to the desks.

All of this could add up to a nice bump for Apple as businesses start looking at Macs again, solely based on the simplicity of Rendezvous. But to really build a critical mass, Apple needs to spread the Rendezvous gospel even more widely. Rendezvous could even work with Windows machines. Microsoft just hasn't built in the capability, although the Windows operating system does support the key technology standards that underpin Rendezvous. Apple has even obligingly offered the Rendezvous software in Windows code. In fact, Apple has open-sourced Rendezvous and released source code for versions designed to work on Linux machines as well.

REMOVING OBSTACLES. I think Jobs & Co. should take the matter one step further: They should build a Windows-compatible app using Rendezvous to get the ball rolling in the PC court. True, such a move might tick off the Colossus of Redmond. No matter. If more Rendezvous-enabled pieces of Windows software start hitting the shelves, slowly but surely, Apple will start to break down the obstacles to switching platforms from Bill's boxes to Steve's elegant machines.

And it's precisely those obstacles, such as proprietary file formats, that have kept Windows the default operating system in the U.S. I don't blame Microsoft for protecting its markets. But you gotta love Apple for breaking this thing open and showing consumers and businesses how much they can save when things that are normally painful all of a sudden just work. Salkever is Technology editor for BusinessWeek Online. Regular "Byte of the Apple" columnist Charles Haddad is on temporary leave

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