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Hardware, software link is Apple's core
Special to The Seattle Times
It's good to have friends and family members who don't share my obsessions. My stepfather, for example, asked me why Apple doesn't just focus solely on the iPod. He doesn't use a Mac, doesn't follow the computer industry, and therefore many of his impressions of Apple are based on the company's ubiquitous advertising for the iPod.
I've been asked similar questions before: Why doesn't Apple ditch its computer-hardware business and make Mac OS X run on generic PC hardware? Or, the reverse: Why doesn't Apple just forget about Mac OS X and build pretty boxes that run Windows?
(And while I'm setting up straw men here, I'll add my own question: Why don't analysts actually seem to know much about Apple when they offer their opinions? I'm afraid I can't answer that one.)
Here are my answers, with some products thrown in as examples.
Take the kids to Boot Camp
Because of last week's news, I'll tackle the questions in reverse order. On Wednesday, Apple released a public beta of Boot Camp (www.apple.com/macosx/bootcamp/), which enables you to install Windows XP on an Intel-based Mac. Boot Camp will also be a feature in the next version of Mac OS X, code-named Leopard.
Boot Camp is for those people who need to occasionally run programs or access services that are unavailable on the Mac. Apple isn't selling or bundling Windows, and Boot Camp offers only dual-boot capability: You can start up the Mac in either Mac OS X or Windows, but not both.
So is this a baby step toward Apple selling Windows machines? Not likely. Apple's computers are beautiful and induce envy in even the staunchest Windows lover, but day to day you don't operate a computer, per se, just as you don't go home and eat a table for dinner.
Even given Apple's engineering feats (of which I've written before; see "Apple takes Power Mac G5 up a notch," from Oct. 29), it's Mac OS X that delivers the Macintosh experience.
Mac OS X
What analysts often fail to recognize, when they bring up this suggestion, are two factors. First, Microsoft is a special case. It licensed MS-DOS (which evolved into Windows) at just the right time in such a way that the fledgling computer hardware companies could propagate it and dominate the market. Successive efforts in the same mold have failed: PalmSource to license the Palm OS, for example, or Apple's abortive attempt at licensing Mac OS 9 before Steve Jobs took over and killed the program. Despite owning the market, Microsoft is the anomaly.
Second, Apple is, and has always been, a hardware company. Its revenues come primarily from hardware, not software. Products such as Mac OS X, iLife, Final Cut Studio and Logic Pro are sophisticated carrots that entice people to purchase Macintoshes.
And because Apple controls the hardware and software, it can keep a bit of a lid on hardware compatibility and security.
The iPod juggernaut
Finally, we get to the iPod. I've been following the iPod since it was first announced and bought one of the first 5 GB models when they were released, but the success of the little music player continues to astound me. Apple sold 6.45 million iPods during its fourth quarter of 2005.
However, Apple also sold 1.2 million Macs during the same period, which undoubtedly provide more profit per sale than iPods. Apple could certainly discard those sales and exist comfortably, but why throw away a lot of good money?
And although the iPod's extreme popularity seems bulletproof now — Dell recently discontinued its competing Dell DJ "iPod killer," for example — it can't last at these levels. Look at the Sony Walkman or the insanely successful Apple II as proof that every product has its life span.
But being a hardware company, Apple saw the lucrative accessory market and decided it wanted a bigger share. Last month it released the iPod Hi-Fi (www.apple.com/ipodhifi/), a one-piece speaker system for the iPod that's a more significant accessory than earbuds, cables and (shudder) iPod Socks.
The $350 iPod Hi-Fi's bookshelf size and clean lines make it ideal for a spare bedroom, study or dorm room, and although Apple touts its fairly impressive audio capabilities, it doesn't stack up to a serious audiophile's expensive stereo system. I found it to be perfectly fine, but a couple of friends whose ears are better than mine noted a lack of depth in the middle ranges of the spectrum. The consensus seemed to be that if Jobs hadn't claimed that the iPod Hi-Fi was an audiophile's choice, it would come across as a better system.
You mount an iPod on the top of the iPod Hi-Fi and control it using either the iPod itself or an included Apple remote control.
However, you can control only the volume, playing and pausing playback, and switching to the previous or next song. I would like to see some method of choosing a playlist or album via the remote, but I can understand Apple's rationale that if you're close enough to read the iPod's screen, you're probably using the iPod's Click Wheel controls.
The iPod Hi-Fi retains the iPod Speaker menu settings from iPod to iPod. So, for example, if you prefer to listen with more bass, the unit will play with more bass even if your son plays his iPod's music through it.
See what just happened? I started with a single iPod and ended up sprinkling Apple hardware throughout my house (in my imagination, anyway). That's Apple's true strength: melding software and hardware such that you find yourself wanting it all.
Glenn Fleishman and Jeff Carlson write the Practical Mac column for Personal Technology and about technology in general for The Seattle Times and other publications. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists
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