Should Apple Sell PC Software?

The notion of tackling Microsoft on its home turf appeals to Mac partisans. A moment's reflection, however, reveals a host of pitfalls

By Charles Haddad

Only the most ardent PC loyalist would argue that Windows handles digital media better than either of the two Mac operating systems. When it comes to editing video, burning DVDs, or managing a digital photo album, Apple sets the standard. Why, then, shouldn't Apple make Windows versions of its iTunes, iPhoto, iDVD, and iMovie software?

That's a question on the minds of growing numbers of industry types and Mac enthusiasts alike. They wonder if Apple could use digital media as a Trojan horse, sneaking into the Windows-dominated world and stealing market share -­ at least in terms of software. After all, digital media is clearly a big part of the future of computers. If Apple could establish iMovie as the standard in video editing, it would command a dominant position, at least in a niche market -- not unlike Windows today. Never mind that the Mac itself only holds 5% of the computer market.

Such reasoning has some precedent. Apple's FileMaker now dominates the home and small-business market for database software ­- for both Macs and PCs. Why couldn't Apple do the same with the potentially much bigger market for the manipulation of sound, photos, and video?


  It's a darn appealing idea. I certainly wanted to believe it. But I've reluctantly concluded that Apple wouldn't have as much luck as the Trojans with its digital decoy. Don't take my word for it -- I wasn't smart enough to figure this out on my own. Sage readers wrote in, shredding the idea as if it was an accounting memo at Enron.

The biggest obstacle is technological incompatibility. All of Apple's software is built for its proprietary PowerPC chip. The two fit like plug and socket. The PowerPC chip includes graphic and multimedia processing features not found in a Pentium. Nor does Windows XP, although a vast improvement over earlier versions, offer the multimedia prowess of OS X.

That's not my conclusion, but that of working engineers who've written to me. Orlando Smith, an independent software engineer who has worked with both platforms, puts it this way: "Windows XP is an adequate...OS, but it doesn't begin to have the graphics and multimedia capabilities of Mac OS X." That seems to be the general consensus among professionals.


  This doesn't mean Apple can't write a Windows version of iTunes. But it wouldn't work as well in Windows. And it would lack many features found on the Mac, such as the seamless integration with Apple's iPod music player. Can you imagine how Steve Jobs, Perfectionist-in-Chief, would greet such a piece of mediocre software? He'd throw his poor engineers out on their keisters. Indeed, what self-respecting Apple engineer would sign up for a such a project? It goes against the whole culture of the place.

Another big obstacle is that PCs are not a unified platform. Despite all its market power and the best efforts of Bill Gates and his lieutenants, Microsoft can't force manufacturers to make their machines conform to a common standard. That's why, despite significant improvements in recent years, PCs still can't guarantee hassle-free plug and play.

Since Apple controls both hardware and software for the Mac, no arm-twisting is required. The company manages the Mac down to the micro-kernel of its OS. Hardware and software developers work side by side. When Apple's hardware engineers decided to include a feature allowing the iPod to recharge its battery through the speedy firewire port common on all new Macs, their software counterparts rushed to write a driver to make it happen. Imagine trying to persuade a dozen-or-so different warring PC manufacturers to do that.


  Not all the obstacles are technical. At its core, Apple remains a hardware company, like Dell or Compaq. Computers represent the lion's share of Apple's revenue and profit. That doesn't mean software isn't critical: It's what sells the hardware -- the magic that makes a box of metal and plastic come to life. Software that lets users save and organize music, photos, and video is what drives Mac sales.

Going after Windows users would represent a U-turn in Apple's software strategy. The bow would have to become the box, so to speak, with software profitable on its own and not just a lure. It could be done but, given Apple's success in reviving the Mac, I'd rather see the company focus on what it does best: building great machines -- and cool software that takes advantage of their unique design.

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

Edited by B. Kite

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