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A Look at Apple’s Scheme to Take Over the Windows Desktop

In the past, software publishers were ragged for delivering applications to Mac users that were far too reminiscent of the Windows platform. WordPerfect got a bad start as a result, and perhaps they never lived it down. What’s more, when Microsoft delivered Word 6, it came across as a poor handmaiden to the Windows version, complete with notoriously foreign interface conventions.

In all this, I suppose Mac users felt lucky if a Windows developer deigned to build a Mac version, so, aside from interface and performance complaints, we were mostly content. Well, some of you anyway, and it’s fair to think that perhaps they made it Windows-like so you’d just get disgusted at get a real PC and be done with it.

Fast forward to 2008, where Macs sales are soaring, and, in recent years, there’s evidence that Apple wants to finally break into the enterprise, after ignoring it for so many years. This doesn’t mean that larger businesses didn’t use Macs. In most cases, they were consigned to the art department, where those “eccentric” content creators wouldn’t touch a PC with a ten-foot pole.

These days, the boss buys a Mac or an iPhone, and then exhorts the IT people to figure out a way to incorporate these fancy gadgets into their workflow.

However, Apple’s entering a major new phase of their marketing strategy, which began, to some extent, with the introduction of iTunes for Windows and later a versionof Safari for that platform. Now just releasing a Windows version  is but part of the story. While Apple has been lambasted in some quarters of the tech press for this, they went ahead and retained a huge chunk of the Mac interface in the Windows version. That, my friends, is what some of those software publishers have done in reverse to Mac users all these years.

What helped, of course, was the iPod, which has a user base that’s far more Windows than Mac. The iPod gave millions of people a look at Apple technology, and, when they use iTunes to manage their songs and movies, they are living within something that resembles the Mac OS X user environment. Safari only expands the joy.

I don’t know if you’ve used Safari for Windows, but it’s so close to the Mac version in some ways that you might think you’re working on a Mac at times, unless you look real carefully. No, I’m not going to get involved in Apple’s controversial efforts to get folks to download a copy, by leaving the option checked in its Software Update panel.

But these are consumer-related initiatives. Up till now, Apple hasn’t done a whole lot to expand beyond the small business user, but the iPhone 3G will change all that. First and foremost, Apple licensed Microsoft’s ActiveSync technology to provide full support for Exchange servers for push email and calendars.

Indeed, we learned of that a few weeks ago, but now we also know that Apple is doing the same for the next version of Mac OS X, code-named Snow Leopard. Now 10.6 won’t be a feature release, although Exchange support is a feature. Instead it will offer performance boosts, and a smaller footprint. The latter appears to be coming from ditching support for PowerPC Macs, but it will be otherwise the same in basic functionality as today’s Leopard.

So where is Apple going from here?

Well, take a look at the forthcoming MobileMe, with its PC-style logo. You can’t call a set of Web services .Mac if you want to reach Windows users, although I am not going to use the me.com address for my email unless I’m dragged to that point kicking and screaming.

What’s more, the applications in the cloud that Apple gives you with MobileMe will very much resemble their Mac OS X counterparts, particularly Address Book and Mail. The intent here is to push this service as much to Windows users as the existing Mac user base, and this means that there will be another way for Apple to expose that other computing platform to the Mac OS X’s interface.

Clever that.

Now where is Apple going to go from here? Well, that’s a good question. Consider: In this week’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, commentator Kirk McElhearn suggests that Apple might indeed produce an expandable Mac priced just above the Mac mini to cater to business users, the folks who buy PCs by the tens of thousands.

As with the “mythical midrange minitower” or headless iMac some of us have been talking about for quite a while now, it would offer roughly half the expandability of the Mac Pro, so you’d be able to install an extra hard drive, an extra PCI-based peripheral card, and several extra RAM sticks.

Most important, it’ll be an easy box for IT professionals to upgrade in minutes, in the tradition of the Mac Pro and Power Mac G5. Unlike the Mac mini, you won’t need a putty knife or other implement to get inside.

If such a model is accompanied by a huge marketing push from Apple, all these forces may coalesce to give Apple the enterprise credibility they have lacked for so long. You heard it first here.