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Apple's High-Water Mark?
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Faster performance is necessary for electronic music professionals who need digital signal processing muscle. Those constituencies have always been the first to buy Apple's fastest computers, and Apple depends on the revenue stream they generate. This illustrates the importance of both hardware and software to certain market segments; the importance of the two aspects changes as hardware becomes more powerful. Software (such as Mac OS X) has usually been the differentiator, because no company has been able to offer hardware that performs compellingly faster than the others. The Cell processor promises to change that. There is a very real possibility the digital media market will quickly migrate to Cell-based computers, if the applications are available.

Demand for the Cell apparently is strong, even before release. The processor has many applications. Military system companies are lining up for it, due to the powerful video processing, number-crunching, and digital signal processing capabilities. The Cell may bring new possibilities to cellular phones, a potentially large market for the chip. Toshiba will use the Cell to power large-screen, high-definition televisions; Toshiba also produces laptop computers. Automotive companies are looking at the Cell; robotics will benefit from it; medical instrumentation companies are embracing it. At least one company is currently building a supercomputer from Cell processors.

Gaming will represent perhaps the largest market, along with general-purpose computing. Gaming is a market Apple hopes to gain share in; at Macworld, Apple presenters continually spoke about the gaming capabilities of the new Macs. Cell-based systems will preempt Apple's growth in the gaming market.

Don't overlook IBM's other large partner, the Chinese company Lenovo, to which IBM sold its entire personal computer division last year. Cell processors may eventually appear in Lenovo computers. The Lenovo deal displayed IBM's business acumen: if you can't beat them, join them. Rather than expend effort trying to compete with Lenovo and others in a highly protected Chinese marketplace, IBM instead sold the business to Lenovo, keeping an 18 percent stake in the company. Now IBM has the blessing of the Chinese government, enjoys rock-bottom production costs, and still gets to offer PCs in Western markets through co-marketing. IBM decided that 18 percent of profits from a huge enterprise is better than struggling for 100 percent of profits from a much smaller one.

Linux Looming

An overlooked factor that may come into play is Linux. IBM's server business benefited by embracing Linux several years ago. Strong indications suggest it is about to push Linux onto the desktop. The Open Source Development Labs (OSDL) in Beaverton, Oregon, was founded several years ago to promote open source software and standards. IBM is one of the primary sponsors of OSDL, and in 2003 it scored a major coup when it hired Linux creator Linus Torvalds to head all research and development.

Torvalds' primary focus these days has been the development of a strong software infrastructure for what is known as the desktop environment, a term used to describe the graphical user interface and tools needed for the average, nontechnical computer user. Torvalds is in charge of OSDL's Desktop Linux initiative, which is scheduled to release a desktop environment this summer.

Though a very capable environment, the Linux desktop to date lacks the polish of Apple's Mac OS X. Many of the applications available under KDE and GNOME (the two major Linux desktops) are in various stages of development and do not compare favorably to their commercial counterparts. Some progress has been made recently. Maya, a popular professional rendering and animation program, has been available on Linux for some time. GIMP is a free program almost identical to Photoshop; it lacks the latest Photoshop features but is a very capable program. Many scientific researchers have discovered that the Linux version of Matlab, a popular mathematical program, performs faster than the Windows version. Several years ago, Adobe experimented with porting to Linux. Sun Microsystems' Star Office suite is a Microsoft Office look-alike that has received good reviews. The entire suite of KDE applications continues to make slow but steady progress. KDE also recognizes Macintosh keyboards; it can behave much like a Macintosh, with the proper configuration; and it offers Mac OS X-style menus, translucency, and mouse-over effects.

If OSDL's Desktop Linux initiative can produce something usable by the general public, then expect IBM to work with Lenovo to deliver a Linux desktop to at least business users. If the Linux desktop ever gets good enough for mass consumer use, then companies such as Sony and Lenovo can offer it and lower their production costs: companies currently pay around $100 in licensing to Microsoft for each copy of Windows that ships with a computer.

One of the elements Mac OS X and Linux have in common, which differentiates them from Windows, is their relative immunity to security problems. This is a strong selling point for the public and should contribute to wider adoption of Mac OS X and Linux. One thing seems certain: Linux usage is about to explode, thanks to the Sony PlayStation 3--analysts expect Sony to sell 200 million of them, which means 200 million Linux computers in the hands of mostly young people (between 5 and 18 years old). This is phenomenal, and is perhaps the best possible way to push Linux into the mainstream.

One criticism of Linux for mass-market use is the issue of device drivers for peripheral components, such as printers, video cards, and scanners. This has been a problem for the Linux community, which largely comprises technical users and hobbyists. Popular opinion claims that device manufacturers will never work closely with the Linux community, and thus Linux will not be viable in the mass market.

Companies like Sony and Lenovo have an advantage in dealing with this issue--the same advantage Apple enjoys by controlling all aspects of Macintosh production. Sony and Lenovo have a large degree of control over their products. They deal in economies of scale and can choose which components are used in their products. If they want to offer Linux compatibility, all they have to do is build systems standardized on components compatible with Linux. IBM has already proven this approach, ensuring that IBM ThinkPads run Linux well. Linux is also compatible with a wide range of peripherals, from printers to scanners and digital cameras. Optimal video performance is still problematic for Linux, but Sony is working closely with nVidia on the PlayStation 3 video controller.

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