Unlike most of its hardware and software rivals, Apple has eagerly used open standards and open-source software to develop–ironically enough–a system that combines proprietary hardware with proprietary software. Apple’s iCal was one of the first widely available desktop calendar programs to adopt the iCalendar standard; Apple embraced iCalendar so early that many people mistakenly thought Apple had invented it. Instead of creating proprietary e-mail protocols to connect Apple Mail with the company’s paid online service, Apple adopted the industry-standard IMAP protocol. The Mac OS ships with the Apache Web server, the Postfix mail server, and the OpenLDAP directory server. All this borrowing is completely legal, and the result is that Apple is able to direct more of its R&D dollars to developing distinguishing technology, since it doesn’t have to spend as much on the “plumbing” of today’s information infrastructure. That directly benefits customers by lowering Apple’s cost of innovation. It also benefits Apple’s third-party developers by making Macintosh development not all that different from Linux development, which is generally regarded as a lot easier than developing software for Microsoft Windows.
Which brings us to Mac OS X version 10.5, or “Leopard,” one of the centerpieces of the “new Apple.” According to the company, Leopard will be unveiled “sometime this spring.” For now, only developers and perhaps a few lucky reviewers have played with it–and both are bound by the most blood-curdling of nondisclosure agreements not to reveal anything about it. But here’s what we can say about the OS, based on the company’s public announcements and on those products and services that will be part of it but are already in use.
Leopard is Apple’s sixth major OS X release in six years. Maintaining that pace is quite an accomplishment, especially considering that Microsoft didn’t release a significant upgrade to its operating system between the launch of Windows XP in 2001 and the release of Vista this year. This contrast reveals more about business strategy than about technical acumen: what Apple has done is move its loyal customers from a software purchase model to a software subscription model. Each of Apple’s new releases has offered significant improvements to part–but not all–of the Macintosh system, and each has cost $129.
That’s a lot of money for an incremental release, but the lack of license management means that payment is based largely on the honor system. (Compare that with Windows, where activation codes accompany every operating system CD-ROM.) This may lose some sales, but the result is that few Apple customers hate the company the way so many Windows customers hate Microsoft. Apple even sells a “Family Pack” version of its operating system, which lets diehard Mac fans spend an extra $70 for the legal right to install the OS on “up to five” computers in their homes. I bought one last year: it contained exactly the same DVDs that the single-user edition did. The difference is in the buyer’s heart.