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Weekly Column

Killer Apps: For Apple's Windows Strategy to Work, It Must Replace Microsoft Office and Buy Adobe Systems

Status: [CLOSED]
By Robert X. Cringely

Over the past three weeks, we've laid out in this column a sequence of clues and events that suggest Apple is planning to next year take on not only Microsoft's hardware OEMs, but also possibly Microsoft, itself, by leveraging a vestigial legal right to some portion of the Windows API -- in this case, literally the Windows XP API. This bold strategy is based on the high probability that -- if something called Windows Vista ships at all next January -- it will really be Windows XP SP4 with a new name. Microsoft is so bloated and paralyzed that this could happen, but what's missing is an Apple application strategy to go with this operating system strategy, because Microsoft's true power lies not in Windows, but in Microsoft Office. Fortunately for Apple, I believe there is an application plan in the works, and I will describe it here.

We've been here before of course with IBM and OS/2. Big Blue thought the Independent Software Vendors (ISVs) would follow it to OS/2 and write thousands of applications for the new OS, only that didn't happen, in part because Microsoft didn't allow it to happen, for which they last year paid IBM an apology worth just under $1 billion. So IBM's OS/2 application strategy became "a better DOS than DOS, a better Windows than Windows." Remember that? They built a virtualization layer, threw on it a subset of the Windows API, and nothing. People still wouldn't buy OS/2 because it WASN'T a better DOS than DOS or better Windows than Windows, at least not in that early version.

The two key differences between that time and this are that Apple isn't IBM, and this isn't 1989. Windows is far more vulnerable today than it was then from a security standpoint. Rather than being an OS on the way up, as it was then, today Windows is the OS we tolerate.

But that doesn't mean Apple can ignore an application strategy, which for the most part means an Office strategy.

Office is how Microsoft makes most of its revenue, and Office is the bludgeon Microsoft uses to keep other software vendors in line. Without Office, Microsoft is just a company with an archaic and insecure OS. If Apple does go ahead to compete head-to-head with Microsoft for Microsoft's own Windows customers, Cupertino will have to be ready in case Mac Office is withdrawn and Windows Office mysteriously breaks on Apple hardware. There is a good likelihood this won't happen, especially if Microsoft can find a way to rev Mac Office for IntelMacs sorta running Windows -- a hybrid product that would look better than the Windows version while retaining 100 percent compatibility and generating an enormous new revenue stream for Redmond. This is the carrot Apple will use to keep Microsoft from doing something truly destructive.

But if that doesn't work, Apple will have to come up with an Office product of its own. Just as Apple had contingency plans for losing Internet Explorer and kept Safari secret even from the KHTML developers, and quietly planned for the contingency of an Intel/AMD switch, so, presumably, they have a contingency for the equally large problem of Office. The obvious contender is OpenOffice, although considering their KHTML move, Koffice would have to be a contender, too (although it needs much more work).

The OpenOffice strategy is not to be revolutionary and different, but to entice Microsoft Office users with a few unique features like PDF export, which Microsoft Office 2007 will now also get. Alas, the Microsoft Open XML patent license conflicts with the General Public License, which could cause problems for Koffice. OpenOffice, like Wine, is licensed under the LGPL, which does allow for such add-ons.

So OpenOffice it is, most likely, but of course, with an Apple twist. Large organizations everywhere are grappling with how to maintain backward read-and-write capability, given that Microsoft has done such a good job of making obsolete its old Office formats, forcing us to upgrade whether we want to or not.

We've long needed a well-documented Open format for Office software, with the ability to store with the documents the details of the actual format so they can be read long after the software that created them or the makers of the software are gone. To do this, we'll need a format that's published and free of legal encumbrances. Open Document Architecture (ODA) didn't work, OpenDocument is making a credible run at the job today, but then there is Microsoft's own Open XML format coming in the next version of Office. Now Open XML isn't "open" in the sense that most of us use that word when we are referring to software standards, but for Microsoft, it is a step in the right direction and has even been submitted to ECMA International, the European association for standardizing information and communication systems.

Now here is something interesting: Apple sponsored the ECMA submission of Open XML. Why would they have done that?

Why? Well, once Open XML is a standard, it becomes much harder for Microsoft to change it. By embracing Open XML, Apple could get complete file compatibility with the new Office format. Now if Apple's old cross-licensing deal with Microsoft also gives them compatibility with the older binary Office formats, it could give them something not even Microsoft has at the moment -- support for ALL Microsoft Office formats, past, present, and future.

Such compatibility would be the killer app component in that native Quartz version of OpenOffice I am sure Apple has had idling in the lab just in case Microsoft pulls the plug on Mac Office. Throw in FileMaker as an Access-killer, and they'll really have something.

If true, this is all very clever of Apple. The cleverest part of all is that they can hold off on a final decision because the software was cheap to do and has probably been ready for months, if not years.

But finding an alternative to Microsoft Office won't fully solve Apple's application vulnerability. That's because for its core media and graphics markets Apple is as dependent on Adobe as it is Microsoft for the general office market. And now that Adobe owns Macromedia, Apple is even more vulnerable.

Adobe has already made one feint away from Mac development that required personal pressure from Steve Jobs on John Warnock to reverse. If Apple kinda-sorta embraces Windows enough for Adobe to question whether continued development for the native OS X platform is still warranted, well, then Apple WILL just become another Dell, which isn't what Steve Jobs wants.

Steve wants Windows applications to run like crazy on his hybrid platform but to look like crap. In his heart of hearts, he'd still like to beat Microsoft on the merits, not just by leveraging some clever loophole. So he needs the top ISVs who are currently writing for OS X to continue writing for OS X, and that especially means Adobe.

There's only one way to make that happen for sure, and that's for Apple to buy Adobe.

Apple has the stock, they have the cash -- such a purchase would effectively cost Apple nothing, the market would like it so well. The Feds would allow it because this current bunch of Feds allows just about anything (just look at Oracle). Efficiencies would abound. For example, Adobe's Premiere editing program could go away in favor of Final Cut Pro. Apple's Aperture photo touch-up program could die so PhotoShop could reign supreme.

Hey, could that be why Apple is rumored to have this week just laid-off its entire Aperture development group?

Could be.

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