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The WWDC Report: Apple’s iTunes Trojan Horse

A lot of companies have long-range plans that seldom extend beyond the end of the current quarter, to ensure high income and increasing profits. Sure, Apple does well with its quarterly financials too, but they clearly have a strategy that will carry through for a number of years.

Take the plans to expand and extend the Mac to the Windows world. At first, it was just QuickTime and iTunes, the better to sell more iPods. As of Tuesday afternoon, Safari joined the fray, ostensibly to give Apple more traction in the browser wars.

But there’s a larger purpose here, and it’s not to have bigger market share numbers on a Web log. Instead, it’s all part of Apple’s vision to convert Windows users to the Mac platform in greater numbers than ever. At least that’s my not-so-humble view.

Let’s take a little journey through time to October, after the promised release of Leopard. A Windows user who has already experienced iTunes and perhaps Safari buys a brand new Mac, and begins to set it up.

After going through the setup assistant and all, the new Mac switcher will notice some of the differences, such as the Apple key instead of the Windows key on the keyboard, and the monolithic menu bar. But a glance at the Leopard Finder will be familiar territory, because it is so heavily influenced by iTunes. From the Sidebar to the Cover Flow feature, the learning curve to navigate the Mac file system won’t seem nearly so severe.

In fact, I’m willing to suggest that the newly-minted Mac person will become adept at Mac OS X in fairly good order, because of the clever steps Apple has taken to train them first on the Windows platform.

Now it is fair to say that the reception to the new features in Leopard have been somewhat tepid. Apple’s stock price took a bit of a dive after the WWDC keynote concluded without new hardware announcements. Sure, unifying the look and feel of Leopard might not be a “Wow!” feature, but it is significant nonetheless.

Lest we forget, one of the hallmarks of the great Mac advantage of old was the fact that all applications looked and worked essentially the same. Ongoing development of Mac OS X shattered that model, with brushed metal, light gray and various shades of platinum cluttering the interface. While most of these variants were more decorative than functional, I often complained about the inconsistency of being able to drag one application window from the bottom, but not another, strictly because it adhered to a slightly different interface design. That just didn’t make any sense.

So why did it take Apple so long to get it right?

I don’t pretend to have any hard answers, but it could be that they were testing different styles to gauge public reaction and see which ones were best suited for both Mac users and Windows switchers.

Certainly, Mac users aren’t shy about expressing their disappointment when things don’t work right. As much as you might believe that you’re being ignored by Apple, the collective input does have a strong impact. From time to time, Steve Jobs will remark that Apple indeed hears the complaints from Mac users, and surely they have responded to those complaints in various ways.

So does the new shaded gray motif represent the sum total of all those complaints, a distillation of the work of Apple’s interface designers, or a combination of both?

Actually it probably doesn’t matter in the end. The fact of the matter is that, aside from making Leopard more accessible to Windows migrants, Apple has made significant improvements to address the complexities of getting around the desktop.

Consider Stacks. It looks great to have those icons fan upward from the refined, 3D Dock. But it also has another purpose, which is to help you clean up your desktop clutter and figure out where things are without having to invoke a search request.

One of the main problems up to now has been the location of the files you downloaded. So that becomes a default Stack, where everything is grouped in one place. I know that I often scan my cluttered desktop to find that new version of some totally cool system enhancement I just downloaded before I find it. Why not Spotlight? That’s too simple!

My son has so much stuff on his PowerBook’s desktop that he has reduced icon size to near invisibility to accommodate them all. I can’t wait to spring Leopard on him.

And I’m certain that, when the Leopard desktop appears to the former Windows user for the first time, the iTunes experience will have served as the ultimate learning tool to help them acclimate themselves to the new order really fast.