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ATPM 10.07
July 2004


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by Wes Meltzer,

Apple in the Balance

Apple (and, by extension, the Mac) is not really at great risk, this month or any month. Rest easily.

Nevertheless, this past month suggests that Apple is at a crossroads. The iPod is ascendant; the recent security vulnerabilities have been fixed and explained in great detail; the future development of Windows and its components demonstrate that the company has a Robert Frost moment ahead of it. The present fork in the road is no greater a choice than many of the other decisions Apple has made at such points in the past, but that does not diminish the significance of what may lie ahead.

Steve Jobs, Gil Amelio, and John Sculley have, so far, led the company down the road less traveled, and so far, they have been the better for it. Today, they seem poised to take either road, and, in a striking change from the past, the road more often traveled could be the better choice. But that’s for you—and, ultimately, I suppose, Steve Jobs—to decide.

In case you either live under a rock or didn’t read last month’s column (or both), there were a series of significant potential exploits detailed online in OS X, some of which were subsequently resolved in security updates. If you didn’t know, read last month’s column, please; for those who know, let’s move on to the news.

John Gruber (apparently next to whom all other Mac pundits pale), provides an excellent analysis of what Apple’s present, and future, could have looked like if they and the Mac user community were less vigilant. This is, he says, the “broken windows” theory, in which Windows machines regularly get infected because both Microsoft and the user community tolerate exploits regularly—and are prepared to clean them out—but not respond proactively. He chalks some of the difference up to market share, perhaps to please people like Paul Thurrott, but argues persuasively that Mac users’ response to these exploits—angry writing and other histrionics—demonstrates that we won’t tolerate exploits. Sociologists (inter multa alia) have long applied the broken windows theory to urban decay, saying that fixing windows as soon as they’re broken demonstrates vigilance and zero tolerance; some Middle Eastern specialists and many Israelis make the same argument for express cleanup and normalization after a suicide bombing. Gruber says:

We all benefit from the fact that the Mac community has zero tolerance for vulnerabilities. Not just zero tolerance for security exploits, but zero tolerance for vulnerabilities. In fact, there is zero tolerance in the Mac community for crapware of any kind.

If some “freeware” software for the Mac surreptitiously installed some sort of adware/spyware/crapware, there’d be reports all over the Mac Web within days. Uninstallation instructions would be posted (and thus made available to all via Google), and the developer who shipped the application would be excoriated.

Zero tolerance, on the part of the user community, is the only policy that can work.

That doesn’t mean that everyone agrees, in any sense. For instance, Charles Miller says that due to Metcalfe’s Law, the ability of a trojan to spread rapidly is a function of the square of the size of the network, rather than the size itself. Consequently it’s only logical that Windows’ share of viruses far outstrips the Mac’s. He does admit that there’s no room for complacency, but says that there are plenty of active, nontolerant people who use Windows—they’re just far outstripped by casual users who really, really want whatever the malware comes packaged with.

Although that seems reasonable, I don’t think Metcalfe’s Law sufficiently discredits Gruber’s argument; after all, Mac users do care, and that’s why exploits tend to be stopped in their tracks before anyone acts on them.

Reading so much about comparative security is a bit of a citation to It’s A Wonderful Life, looking at what could be and then gladly returning to what is. Gruber wrote, the very next day, that Apple did precisely what they needed to: they fixed the vulnerability quickly and documented what they did thoroughly. Zero tolerance on Apple’s part.

Everyone’s favorite beleaguered computer company is also at a crossroads where the iPod is concerned. Steve Jobs told The Guardian Unlimited that not only did he admire Sony, probably the well-trodden path, but that he thought the iPod would have to stand alone:

[Neil McIntosh]: When the iPod was launched, you said it might lead people to the Mac platform. Does you still believe that?

[Steve Jobs]: No. We brought the iPod to Windows. That was a big decision. That was basically a decision not to use the iPod to drive people to Macs. We’re going to use it as a music device, and we’re going to put it on Windows. The majority of iPods we sell are used on Windows.

So Apple now has an entire division devoted to producing something that may not enhance the value of Mac sales. At all. Sounds a lot like Sony, doesn’t it? Could that be the direction that Apple is headed? Jack at As the Apple Turns wonders (facetiously) if maybe Apple making music its top priority could be “slightly sinister.”

What are they going to do with the iPod? Are they going to try to diversify into a multimedia company? Here’s your chance, video iPod people! (I really hope not. But still.) Does AirPort Express suggest the new direction?

Speaking of the iPod, here are two more important news tips:

Now, what was that I said about Microsoft and Web development earlier? Lately there’s been a good deal of chatter about Microsoft and its ability to innovate, or whatever you want to call it, as far as the Web is concerned. In light of Internet Explorer for the Mac’s cancellation (among others), it’s certainly an interesting question, right?

Internet Explorer’s development is stuck until 2006, and Microsoft may have reached the plateau as far as innovation is concerned, according to John Allsop. They have no incentive. But—could Apple innovate?—he asks. After all, Safari’s already halfway to Windows, too, what with iTunes. Right? Sounds perfect? Except it’s not, according to Dave Hyatt, who should know. Just because WebKit really isn’t available on Windows doesn’t mean we can’t hope that Apple could step into the void where that’s concerned.

Dovetailing nicely into this perspective is Joel Spolsky’s lengthy discussion of Microsoft and the potential death of its Windows APIs in the face of Web software. Although developers may be using .NET, they could also be using Mono, or some other Web development platform, and clients would no longer be tied to using Windows. Again, could that be Apple’s opening to innovate, in the browser space rather than in the client space? And does that make us the suckers, buying into a platform whose existence is irrelevant?

John Gruber, again chipping in, suggests that Web software is important particularly because of its platform agnosticism and its less limiting UI standards. He adds that Microsoft misread the competition when they killed off Netscape: the Web itself was their enemy, not Netscape. And the Web is what’s hurting Win32, like Joel says.

If you want to talk platform-agnostic, how about Frontier’s kernel being open-sourced? Since it runs on OS9, OS X and Windows, and can be used to drive a database in an easy-to-learn manner, why not? Mac developers, unite!

So Apple has their fork in the road ahead of them, as we’ve seen. But there’s plenty of other interesting news from June:

Phew! That’s pretty much it, folks. Keep your eyes open, as that fork in the road is coming up soon. Trust in Steve Jobs, and let me just say, I’m glad we’re sitting in the passenger seat.

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