Despite all of the doom and gloom about Apple, the company is still doing well in the home and education markets. The doom and gloom comes in part from Apple's ever-increasing trouble in the business market. I don't think there's anything new in that.
Apple's heart was never in the business market. For all its lip service to business, Apple never felt passionate about building better word processing and spreadsheet boxes, even if the company did have the best one at the time of the big ramp up of the business microcomputer market, before Excel and Word moved to Windows. This lack of interest showed in Apple's attitude toward most business people. Apple's commercials portrayed outside consultants and mavericks as heroes, thus attracting outside consultants and mavericks to the Macintosh at the expense of attracting large businesses and conformists.
When compatibility with mainframes became an issue (for the short time people were off-loading mainframe data onto LANs) Apple didn't want to be there. With the advent of LANs, Apple didn't build the technology to deal with LANs on their own turf, large corporations. Instead, Apple built peer-to-peer networks of collegial desktop machines. Unfortunately, they never paid attention to two major problems: the network bandwidth and the multitasking necessary for those networks to function properly from the high-volume user's point of view. Power users would suffer from problematic performance hits when they tried to work while printing in the background and having their Macs accessed via file sharing.
For PC users, multitasking was less of a problem, because those two jobs were usually off-loaded to separate machines, whose jobs were to do nothing but run a printer or serve files. In contrast, on most Macintosh networks (especially after System 7 came out), every machine is potentially a server for everyone else, and everyone is their own print server. Only late in the game did Apple release the Apple Workgroup Servers.
Fortunately, the first problem, bandwidth, has been addressed, because most Macs now come with Ethernet, while the second problem, preemptive multitasking on faster processors, is being solved slowly. This is good for Apple, because peer-to-peer architecture is where the world appears to be headed. The whole Internet is a peer-to-peer, "geodesic" network, where each machine is optimized for its own particular function, be it serving or switching information. The Internet has no central repository of anything, and that has been Apple's view of networks since day one.
If it's any consolation, in the future, we won't even need LANs to do business. A couple months ago, I saw Netscape running in the bond trading room of the largest institutional trustee bank in the United States. In this case, Netscape beat PowerBuilder hands-down in a prototype development shootout. The prototype was the production version. Netscape can do anything from secure outside-the-firewall SQL calls to conducting actual cash commerce. Game over. Netscape is not special in this regard - any sufficiently secure browser/server combination can do the same thing. Either one, client or server, can be developed for a dime a dozen even now. This is especially true when compound document architectures come online, like Apple's Cyberdog.
We won't need LANs because the only real difference between a LAN and the Internet is a firewall for security, and the need for clients to speak Novell's TCP/IP-incompatible proprietary network protocol. With Internet-level encryption protocols like the IETF IPSEC standard, you won't need a firewall. The only people who can establish a server session with any machine connected to the net will be those issuing the digital signatures authorized to access that machine. Then, networks will need to be as public as possible, which means, of course, TCP/IP, not NetWare. It's like Heinlein's old joke about space: "once you're in Earth orbit, you're halfway to anywhere". So, once you've gotten rid of the firewall, you're everywhere.
What happens to the information concentrated behind those firewalls - or proprietary software markets, for that matter - when, because of strong cryptography, firewalls disappear? Remember what happened to those floating globs of grease in the detergent commercial? Surfacted away into tiny bits. I can hear Bill Gates now: "I'm melting! I'm melting!" Now you see why he's fighting so hard to be Internet-compatible all of a sudden.
In this "decade of the Internet," the user interface, platform, desktop, LAN, whatever, is meat and real life is on the net, to paraphrase William Gibson.
For the time being, I have thought that the Mac, at least as long as Apple makes most Macs, is the computer for the "best of us," not "the rest of us." I've learned to live with that. I no more worry about Apple's prospects than I do about Porsche's. I expect Apple management, like Herr Doktor Porsche, is just waking up to the fact that even though Apple designed the Volkswagen, it can't possibly mass produce them efficiently at a decent enough profit to advance the state of the art, which is where Apple's heart has been all along. Sooner or later, Apple will go back to cranking out 917s that demonstrate the power of the technology, 911s that offer a more affordable version of that power, and 928s that are for those of us who only want to look the part. Fortunately, there are lots of companies, like Power Computing, to produce Volkswagens for those who can't afford Porches, and "Macintosh" won't mean just "Apple" anymore.
To me, a fully-credentialed Mac Bigot and camp-follower, Apple's future means Cyberdog, and Cyberdog means breaking down large "glops" of information and software "grease" and surfacting them, fractally, into little bitty bits out into the net, where all machines, not just dumb Java terminals, can use them better. It also means developing cryptographically strong Internet-level security, so anyone can talk to any machine from anywhere if they have permission to do so, and nobody without permission can get in or see what those authorized people are doing. It means building into all network applications the ability to do digital commerce. That is, the ability to handle digital bearer certificates, like Digicash's ecash and the ability to handle micropayments, like the MicroMint protocol, or their successor technologies. Imagine if your code could send you money in the mail, or if a router did real-time load balancing by changing its micropayment price-per-through-packet when traffic got too high or too low. The future of the net may be a strange place, indeed.
Until that happens, I suppose Porsche parts is still a lucrative business, as long as developers keep in mind what business they're in.
[Robert Hettinga writes frequently about digital commerce and the Internet; for more on the topics above, check out his other essays.]