Assessing Apple's Place on the Internet

Macintosh users have always been well-connected--in the online sense, that is. When the Internet was still a novelty, they flocked to it in numbers vastly higher than what one might expect based on the Mac's market share. And Macs were the favored machines for content creation in those early days. Mac Web servers were even popular for small to medium-size sites because they were reliable and easy to use, unlike their beefy but arcane Windows NT- or Unix-based counterparts.

This was all rather amazing, given that Apple joined the Internet cult long after much of the industry had ascended to cyberspatial bliss.

With the Internet World trade show coming to L.A. next week, the time seems right to revisit the state of the Mac on the Net. Phil Schiller, Apple's vice president for worldwide marketing, describes the company's Internet strategy this way: Provide the easiest online experience and the easiest way to create and publish Web content.

Has the Mac lived up to that standard? Let's start with the Web surfer's experience.

Apple has long had the parts in place for great Net navigation. Every Mac ships with all the software you need to get started. This includes easy connections to Internet service providers, a choice of browsers, Apple's Cyberdog suite of Web tools, and credible support for Java--a critical tool for the richest Web experience.

In general, setting up network plumbing is easier on a Mac. That's worth a lot if you've ever lived through the common hell of getting communications protocol settings to work. Apple's Personal Web Sharing also lets you create a Web site on your own hard drive--making Web publishing nearly as easy as file sharing has been on the Mac for years.

Apple's OS 8 integrated all these parts smoothly and made it easy--even for novices--to get started.

Is this superior to the Windows 95 approach? I'm afraid the question is more religious than technical. Microsoft Windows does just about all of the above nearly as well. (And in many cases, software developers create plug-ins--small applications that enable special effects, animations or other special features of Web sites--first or solely for Windows.) Many people justifiably favor the Mac's approach, but unbiased users of both systems don't give either a huge edge.

What about content creation? Windows has also gained ground here, but the Mac's supremacy in desktop publishing has largely carried over to Web publishing. Apple has also developed an easy-to-use tool called Cocoa, designed to help kids create Web sites without having to write any code.

Then there's QuickTime, Apple's cross-platform technology for creating and viewing digital media such as streaming video, audio and animation. QuickTime has been widely accepted as a standard Web multimedia tool. Many software developers use QuickTime over competing products, regardless of the platform they're writing for. Apple hopes that such acceptance will encourage developers to use the G3 Macs (which are optimized for QuickTime) to create Web applications.

Apple has also continued to develop ColorSync (the best technology for ensuring reasonable color fidelity among scanners, monitors and output devices) and WebObjects (an easy system for quickly building Web applications). Overall, the Mac is still the clear winner for Web content creation.

The final piece is servers--the machines that deliver the content. Unfortunately, Apple let its once-promising server business lag the Web's ever-increasing complexity. Windows NT and Unix have prevailed.

Servers aside, will Apple now move aggressively to build on its strong Web technologies to woo new customers? Not right away, according to Schiller. For now, Apple is focused on saving the company by meeting the needs of the most loyal customers--educators and publishers. Until they are firmly back in the fold, everything else takes a back seat.

"By the way, we do have a growth strategy," Schiller says. "But we aren't talking about it until we've shown a profit for a few quarters."

I hope we get to hear that talk soon. Survival, profit and growth sound like an even better place than cyberheaven.


Charles Piller can be reached at

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