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December 06, 2010

Will Apple scuttle its legacy like HP did?

Apple's been held up as an example of what HP once was: an innovator and powerhouse that built its own successes. The iPad has become so popular so quickly that it's now outselling Macs. And so the mavens of the Apple world now consider how much longer the Mac can survive Apple's own clever creation: the iOS environment, now driving 70 million iPhones and 15 million iPads. It's the new nirvana. Those ideals are promoted by the people who have little invested in the Mac OS X. They forget to nurture their ancestors' wisdom.

Exhibit A: A column from new contributor John Gruber on the back page of MacWorld. He seems to wonder if Apple is as typical as HP, because "At typical companies, 'legacy' technology is something you figure out how to carry forward. At Apple, legacy technology is something you figure out how to get rid of."

There's some problems with that thinking. First, enterprise legacy only gets carried forward at a big customer's insistence. At typical companies like HP, legacy technology is something you figure out how to marginalize and push into the boutique shadows. Much of the decade before HP's announced departure from the 3000 world -- just four weeks from being complete -- was spent pushing MPE aside to trumpet Unix. (How's that choice working for you now, HP? Those footsteps you hear are Linux, not WebOS.)

It's always easier to sit in a developer's chair and say the future lies in the newest design, especially if it's growing more popular by the quarter. But customers -- millions of them using Macs today, even in business -- sit in different chairs and see investments they want a vendor to protect. A great company learns to balance protection with the innovation. Disney didn't stop making cartoons just because it discovered live-action movies and amusement parks.

At MacWorld's back page, Gruber chronicles the demise of the non-Intel Mac OS. "The 64-bit Carbon application programming interface died. It’s not that these technologies were no longer useful. It’s that continuing to support them would have slowed the company down. Time spent supporting the old is time not spent building the new."

You can just substitute MPE for Carbon in that sentence and hear the argument to axe the 3000. In a strident tone straight off his sharp, iOS-cheering blog Daring Fireball, Gruber seems to forsee how Apple might want to pave over the past to save its future.

Apple’s cultural aversion to legacy technology isn’t about a lack of seriousness, or a short companywide attention span. It’s not about being attracted only to the new and shiny. It’s about fear—the fear of being weighed down by excess baggage. Fear that old stuff will slow them down in their pursuit of creating brand-new stuff.

The question isn’t whether iOS has a brighter future than the Mac. There is no doubt: it does. The question is whether the Mac has become "legacy."

The underlying question is whether Apple is about to become as typical as HP. Because HP has been getting rid of the "excess baggage" of legacy technology for the last 15 years.

Ever since 1984, I have reported on plenty of sound technology re-indexed as Legacy. While the vendors are usually keen to tear this stuff away from their product futures, the customers part with it much more slowly, if at all. HP hasn't even built an HP 3000 since 2003, but Fortune 100 companies still use the server, even as they plan to migrate. HP dumped on the 3000's OS futures in favor of Unix, which somehow was tagged as "brand-new stuff" at enterprises in the advent of Open Systems. (Remember those systems? The computers that ran on environments all the same? Turns out we all had a hard time finding those snipes of computing.)

Legacy is an epithet to a customer who's invested in it, and a millstone around the neck of a company that wants to move onward. The future of the new, if it's well-built, always looks brighter to a vendor who thrives on churn. I've used Macs to run businesses and bought an iPad (tres useful) on Day One. But I hope Apple hasn't become that kind of scuttle-happy supplier.

If anyone should be careful of wishing for something, it's the cheering iOS developers and blogging friends. The Mac has become a stable choice of both high-tech developers in their 40s and 50s in the 3000 community, as well as the choice of millions of common users buying Macbook Airs. iOS maturity today is at about the 1993 level of the Mac's OS, even allowing for a a new-gen rate of evolution. It's madness to consider that Mac OS is going to the grave, or even whistling past a graveyard, by even 2020. HP figured you'd all be migrated by five years ago. Um, not so much.

At HP, the Unix enterprise business never would have taken hold without the track record of the HP 3000 success. Let's hope that Apple won't listen too hard to the iOS cheering and scuttle what made the company a serious force in computing -- all because mobile is sexy. The iPad outsells the Macs now, but you can't accomplish some serious productivity tasks on a 10-inch screen. Try creating something of great scope, or even of modest size.

Back in the days of those mid-80s, I worked at a publishing company where we produced tabloid-size trade newsletter layouts on 9-inch Mac Plus screens. Such torture is no way to grow a market. Apple needs both OS choices; let the HPs of the world cast off good technology. And Gruber gets to this, eventually, in his column.

Long term—say, 10 years out—well, all good things must come to an end. But in the short term, Mac OS X has an essential role in an iOS world: serving as the platform for complex, resource-intensive tasks.

And then the 10 years becomes 15, just like the customers are taking more than a decade to drift away from the 3000. Welcome to the world of computer success, Mr. Jobs. You gotta feed your ancestors, not set them adrift on ice floes.

05:54 AM in Migration, Newsmakers | Permalink

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