In the past five months, Apple has dropped the word “Computer” from its name; settled its long-standing dispute with Beatles music publisher Apple Corps; introduced the Apple TV, a set-top box based on its iTunes technology; and announced that it is getting into the cell-phone business. Apple wants us to believe that it is no longer a computer company but, rather, a digital “lifestyle” company, building a set of high-tech experiences around a core of technologies and designs that are warmer, cleaner, easier to use, and more enjoyable than what its competitors in Seattle and Japan have to offer.
But peel off the skin and Apple emerges as a computer company that’s tried and true. Yes, Apple has the world’s largest online music store. Yes, Apple has more than 170 brick-and-mortar stores around the world, which sell a lot more than just laptops. But a deep commitment to computing is what holds this empire together.
Consider this, from Apple’s recent quarterly filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Apple is “the only participant in the personal computer industry that controls the design and development of the entire personal computer–from the hardware and operating system to sophisticated applications,” the company wrote. “This, along with its products’ innovative industrial designs, intuitive ease-of-use, built-in graphics, multimedia and networking capabilities, uniquely positions the Company to offer innovative integrated digital lifestyle solutions.” It all starts with computing.
Consider the Apple TV. This misnamed product is really just a little single-board computer with a 40-gigabyte hard drive running software that offers a user interface similar to that of iTunes and Front Row, which have been available on Apple’s desktops and laptops for a while. In other words, it’s a slightly repackaged Mac Mini–one that’s thinner and wider–with a slightly different selection of video outputs. Even the remote control is the same one that Apple sold me with my MacBook and iMac. (To learn a bit about how Apple designs its products, see “Different”.)
I am not the Apple TV’s target audience. This is a box for families that have wide-screen HDTV panels hanging on the walls of their family rooms. In my family we are much happier gathering around my wife’s desk and watching movies on the 20-inch iMac that we bought last year. In fact, the Apple TV won’t even work with our TV, a 15-year-old, 19-inch RCA; the Apple TV will only output HDMI, DVI, or component video, and our old TV wants composite video. I also noticed that the Apple TV gets quite warm even when it is doing nothing. Presumably, one reason for its thinness is better heat dissipation. (Apple has long had more problems with heat dissipation than other computer companies, because of Steve Jobs’s intense dislike of fan noise.)
It’s too early to say whether the Apple TV will be a success (if it does fail, it is sure to be quickly forgotten, given how good Apple is at burying mistakes). Nevertheless, in the past few years Apple has enjoyed a return to prominence within the computer industry–and not just because of its designs. In the world of servers and machine rooms, where ease of use and style are largely irrelevant, Apple has emerged as a company that delivers extraordinarily reliable, cost-effective computing hardware. Its rack-mounted Xserve server is showing up in major corporations and in supercomputing clusters. Organizations are even purchasing Apple’s Xserve RAID storage array and using it with non-Apple servers running Windows or Unix.