ServersApple, Late to the Party -- Again

Apple, Late to the Party — Again

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Paul Rubens

Poor old Apple. Every time it arrives at a party it seems like the caterers are packing away the empty champagne crates, and the cool young things are moving on to the next hot place to strut their funky stuff.
OS Roundup: Sure, its offerings are pretty, but Apple is again proving that when it comes to the enterprise server room, it still doesn’t get it.

Apple has yet to make an entrance at the enterprise server operating system party. For years, it’s been trying to use its alluring smile to get past the doorman, but success has been negligible: Unix, Windows and the upstart Linux have been happily networking and stuffing their faces inside while Apple’s OS X Server has managed to grab only a few crumbs off the floor by the entrance.

Now signs indicate the party is moving on to a nightclub called The Cloud. Linux is already in there, Unix has been spotted, and Windows has just made sure its name is on the guest list with its recent Azure cloud services announcement.

So where does that leave Apple? There’s no sign yet that it has realized that the old party may be moving. Even if it does find its way to The Cloud in coming months or years, it’s doubtful there’s enough in its purse to pay the admission fee. Apple prides itself on style over functionality, but looks alone will not be enough to get it into this particular bash.

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What about Mobile Me? It’s a mail and calendaring service (and a little more besides) offered from the cloud, similar in scope to Google’s online offerings or Windows Live. It’s certainly not a cloud infrastructure enterprises will be using to build and deploy large-scale applications around the world.

If a significant proportion of enterprise applications do move to the cloud, many will still be accessed by end users, probably with a Web browser. In theory, this should be good news for Apple, since Microsoft’s dominance on the enterprise desktop will become less important: As long as the client device has a suitable browser, it will be able to access applications in the cloud. Apple is arguably at its strongest when it’s looks that count.

The hottest hardware right now is the netbook — the low powered, mini-laptop with a 10-inch screen and shrunken keyboard pioneered by Asus and copied by Acer and other hardware vendors. These are ideal for accessing applications in the cloud: They are lightweight, portable and very, very cheap. Like 500 bucks cheap. It’s the latest party for the end user, and the dress code is strictly tatty jeans and a T shirt.

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Poor old Apple hasn’t even got that party’s address yet. It thinks the action is at another party altogether, and it’s busy unveiling $1,600 MacBooks and MacBook Pros priced at nearly $3,000. Their pumped up Core 2 Duos are popping out of their alluring aluminum unibody enclosures. Too bad Apple hasn’t figured out everyone is dressing down these days.

You could argue that Apple doesn’t need a netbook offering since cloud apps can be accessed using the iPhone and iPod Touch, but the idea of using applications in the cloud for more than a few seconds with the tiny soft keyboard these devices sport is simply preposterous. Let’s face it, you need a proper keyboard with proper keys if you really want to get anything substantial done. That’s why netbooks are so popular.

If Apple has a netbook up its sleeve then we probably won’t know about it until the moment it’s unveiled. Apple does do secrecy well, so one could be launched tomorrow. I’m guessing it would be stunning, but it wouldn’t undercut the iPod Touch — which already costs more than some netbooks. And even so, Apple would still be late to the netbook party.

Here’s another potential problem for Apple. If you make a netbook, you need an operating system to run on it. Something lightweight to run responsively on an Atom processor. In fact Leopard can be made to run on netbooks, but if the company launches an Apple netbook it would almost certainly have to produce a special version of OS X. Or perhaps it would run iPhone software. That, of course, would mean no cut and paste.

Right now the netbook OS choice is between Linux and Windows XP — Vista being too bloated to fit on most netbooks.

The sharper Linux distros have twigged that small is the new big. For example Canonical, sponsor of the popular Ubuntu Linux distro, already offers a “netbook remix” of its distro — a slightly modified version with a smaller footprint optimized for Atom-powered devices with smaller screens.

Microsoft hasn’t missed the significance of netbooks either. While it’s far too big an organization to match the agility of Canonical and come out with a netbook offering straightaway, it does have Windows 7 in the pipeline and scheduled for launch some time next year. The interesting thing about Windows 7 is that, from what is known about it so far, it’s actually smaller and faster than Vista. It will certainly run on netbooks — as Microsoft Senior Vice President Steve Sinofsky demonstrated at the company’s Professional Developer’s Conference last week — and there will probably be a Windows 7 remix optimized for netbooks, too.

Apple was late to the party moving to Intel processors, it’s missing the enterprise OS party, and it doesn’t seem to have heard of the party getting going in the cloud. Although the netbook party is well under way, there’s no sign yet that Apple is even aware of it. Most likely it will keep on churning out supermodel laptops and upgrades to its very pretty OSX, even if they end up being all dressed up with nowhere to go. Forget Snow Leopard, if netbooks maintain their popularity Apple’s next OS may have to be called White Elephant.

Paul Rubens is an IT consultant and journalist based in Marlow on Thames, England. He has been programming, tinkering and generally sitting in front of computer screens since his first encounter with a DEC PDP-11 in 1979.

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