Apple Moves Upscale

It’s been a long, hard road back to relevance for Apple Computer, but they seem to have made it through. Today’s announcement of the XServe rack-mounted Mac server marks their graduation day from the realm of the desktop powerhouses to the rarefied territory of the server world. It’s a welcome move, and one more notch for Steve Jobs’ gunbelt.

Five years ago Apple Computer was on the brink of death (anyone else remember the infamous “Pray” cover from Wired magazine, back when Wired was worth reading?) The rocky transition from the crusty Motorola 68000 line of CPUs to the modern PowerPC line was going slowly at best. Their product line was a bewildering mix of dozens of models, each with minor distinctions from the others that made it near impossible to figure out which one was best for you. They had started allowing other companies to license the Mac OS, but did everything they could to cut those companies off at the knees and then complaining that the cloners weren’t taking off in the right markets. In short, Apple was a mess.

Then, like him or not (I sure don’t), Steve Jobs came back to Cupertino. And things started to turn around.

Jobs took drastic action to renew Apple’s health at its core. He slashed the product line down to 4 products — low-end and power-user versions of a desktop (iMac, Power Mac) and notebook (iBook, PowerBook) Mac. He killed off the licensing experiment once and for all. And he pushed the old “classic” 68000-based Macs off a cliff to make way for the PowerPC based future.

And, most importantly, he shepherded the remodeling of NeXTStep, the operating system that had driven the products of his previous venture, into a slick synthesis of the Mac OS’s eye candy and ease of use and the legendary reliability of UNIX — Mac OS X.

And OS X, more than anything else, has made people regard Apple in a new light. It took a computer that was previously a lightweight, crash-prone system and turned it into a system that could handle the most complex applications with alacrity, while showing a beautiful face to the world to boot. OS X isn’t perfect (the Dock is a usability abomination, for example), but it’s closer to the ideal of the perfect desktop OS than anyone else has come to so far.

So now, with Apple’s base market of desktop users secure, they are turning to a new market — the server market. There have been Mac servers for almost as long as there have been Macs, but they were never for serious use — the Mac OS had too many built-in limitations (no multitasking, flaky memory support, single-user OS only). But now OS X has changed all that and made it possible to use the word “Mac” and “server” in the same sentence without attracting howls of derisive laughter.

So here’s to Apple — not perfect (remember the G4 Cube?), but healthy and happy again, and showing the kind of vibrant spirit that was so long absent from their company. Let’s hope they can keep up the pace of innovation and keep reminding folks that yes, Virginia, there is a world outside Microsoft Windows.