Apple re-enters desktop battle

Apple Computer Inc.'s future has always been uncertain. Whether the company was competing with IBM Corp. and airing its famous "1984" Big Brother TV commercial or fighting the Microsoft Corp. Windows/Intel Corp. duopoly, the company has always been the underdog.

Despite Apple's smaller size and market share, for a time it was an open question whether the Macintosh could break out of its niche of loyal customers into the general desktop computer market. But by the early 1990s, it seemed the question had been settled in favor of Windows/Intel (or Wintel) PCs.

That conclusion may have been premature. Despite market share that has eroded from the Mac's heyday, Apple is positioning for another shot at attracting large numbers of new users. The iMac desktop computer drew a lot of new Apple users a couple years ago, but the only debate among commercial customers and federal agencies seemed to be about which version of Windows to standardize.

But the growing popularity of Linux, a free version of the Unix operating system, shook many preconceived notions. Maybe Windows wasn't the only game in town after all. And once users started reconsidering Windows, the door cracked open for Apple as well.

Apple is rolling out attractive and innovative products like the ones that made the company's fortunes. Complaints that the Mac lacked horsepower have been largely answered with machines based on the new PowerPC G4 processor: the Power Mac G4 and Power Mac G4 Cube desktops, and the Titanium PowerBook G4 notebook. These machines boast sufficient computing power that matches or beats comparable Wintel boxes.

The Apple operating system and Finder user interface have grown a bit stale with age and lagged behind Windows in some areas, such as pre-emptive multitasking — the ability to work on multiple tasks simultaneously.

Apple has addressed those concerns with an all-new operating system, OS X, which is scheduled to be available March 24. OS X is not an update of the existing operating system, OS 9. It is all-new software built on a Unix foundation and is the first complete overhaul of the operating system since the Mac was introduced in 1984. And because it is compliant with the portable operating system interface for Unix, users will be able to port Unix applications to run on OS X. (The "X" in the name is the Roman numeral 10.)

The result is that many federal PC buyers might re-examine plans to buy only Wintel PCs. The Power Mac's RISC (reduced instruction-set computing) processor and Unix operating system are more typical of powerful workstations than PCs, and the Mac could easily win business as a low-priced alternative to many graphics workstations. At the same time, its more open operating system, ability to run existing Mac and Windows programs easily with an emulator and speedy new hardware make it a viable alternative for even users of basic office-productivity tools.

"It gives the Macintosh a superior operating system to anything out there," said Dendy Young, chairman and chief executive officer of GTSI Corp., an Apple reseller in Chantilly, Va. "For the first time, this makes Apple a worthy competitor to Microsoft. In the past, there were always reasons not to buy a Mac. But now they've turned that into a reason to buy."

It should be particularly attractive to those federal users who have both a Unix workstation and a Windows PC on their desks. A G4 Mac running OS X will be a viable alternative to both machines, easily capable of running all but the most demanding workstation tasks or the most unusual, custom-written Win-dows applications.

"You've got the generic old-line requirements from the government for high-end graphics workstations," said Rich Schmelz, senior director for strategic programs at GTSI. "With the DVD drive on there and OS X coming out, it may open up some new applications than in the past. It may not replace the high-end Sun and SGI boxes."

"We are seeing a huge rise in sales right now," said Lenny Sachs, core product manager for the OAODNS contract for OAO Corp. in Greenbelt, Md. The contract provides computers to NASA on a three-year lease, making it a quasi seat-management contract. OS X won't be available on the contract until this fall, but "I anticipate seeing a lot of new Macs this year," Sachs said.

The G4 Power Mac's increase in horsepower combined with the Unix-based OS X will make it a real contender, said Scott Ripley, senior communications specialist for the House of Representatives.

"Apple has never had the hardware to stand up to the bigger iron floating around the back end of IT shops," he said. "I think having a true Unix under-pinning with a true graphical user interface will sway a lot of people."

Although OS X will be avail-able this month to current Mac users, new Apple computers won't ship with the new system until the summer. And a version of Microsoft Office, the most popular application suite for the Mac, won't be tuned for OS X until this fall. Users will be able to run the current version in emulation mode.

So, even though all of the new goodies may not be available to everybody immediately, over the course of 2001, Apple will roll out new hardware and software that will force federal agencies to re-examine the Macintosh. Apple's success in converting customers to its platform, however, may depend on the company's support for the special needs of federal agencies.

Carney is a freelance writer based in Herndon, Va.

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