|:•) I, Cringely |
June 14, 2007 Pulpit
The Seduction of AT&T: Why did Apple write Safari for Windows? Because their big customer wants it.
This week was Apple's World Wide Developers Conference (WWDC), the biggest news from which seemed to be the beta version of Safari (Apple's web browser) for Windows. Why the heck would Apple even produce such a product? Readers and pundits alike have been wondering ad nauseam.
I know why.
There are two theories being widely floated: 1) this is a challenge to Microsoft, and; 2) this is a strategic platform for Apple to offer its own web-based application suite. To a certain extent both may be correct, but I think there is a lot more to this story, which is sorely missing context in those many explanations.
Let's start with that context, which is Apple's WWDC, an event sorely lacking in both substance and controversy if we ignore this Safari story. Mac OS X 10.5 still isn't ready to ship. The iPhone is coming in a couple weeks but Apple is so far only hinting at opening the product to third-party developers. In other words, Steve Jobs had bupkus when it comes to creating press this week UNLESS he throws Safari for Windows into the mix.
Apple had to come up with something and this version of Safari, which reviewers have found to be buggy and definitely not ready for primetime, was it. Maybe Apple intended to do a Safari for Windows or not, but I'm guessing they had a version running in the lab as an exercise in Intel compatibility. When Steve realized that he had so little to hype, this alpha code suddenly became a beta "product."
This isn't to say that Safari for Windows wasn't always intended to be a product, but its current state of development strongly suggests that it wouldn't have been in Steve's presentation if he had much else to show.
Microsoft is not threatened by the announcement of Safari for Windows. Bill Gates isn't pissed off that Apple has challenged him. Gates is worried about Firefox, not Safari, and even Firefox is just a minor annoyance or else Microsoft would be doing a better job of competing with it.
Beyond garnering some press, Safari for Windows is about AT&T. Steve Jobs is the best salesperson in the entire universe, but he doesn't like to waste his time. That means that, having seduced AT&T (nee Cingular), Steve will try to sell them more and more stuff until they have bought everything he has. He will invent stuff specifically to sell to AT&T as long as it acts as a bridge to yet more stuff he wants to sell them.
Steve wants AT&T to see him not just as the answer to their prayers, but as the answer to their EVERY prayer.
What could AT&T be praying for? Plenty of things, but the most obvious theme I see is how to compete with Verizon, Comcast, and all the national cell phone providers. With Verizon, AT&T has to defend its decision to stick with a copper broadband infrastructure instead of the more expensive optical fiber Verizon has picked. With Comcast, AT&T has to defend its copper plant against Comcast's copper plant, which is about to gain a LOT more bandwidth thanks to new modems using more advanced modulation techniques. And against the other mobile operators, AT&T has to defend its decision not to go full 3G with the iPhone.
Are you noticing a trend here? AT&T is facing a potential bandwidth crisis when it comes to customer perception and it is logical to assume that Apple helped create that crisis. After all, the iPhone could easily have been made to work with 3G. Since AT&T HAS a 3G network, the decision not to use it was probably complicated and some of that complication may have come from Steve Jobs saying, "We don't need it. The iPhone will be insanely great with G2.5, thanks."
Here is the complex package of goods Apple is trying to sell to AT&T: There's the iPhone, of course, but there is also the Apple TV as a potential set-top box. Three hundred dollars for a set-top box? You have to be crazy! Not so crazy. Compared to not spending the kind of money Verizon is spending on fiber, Apple TVs are cheap even if AT&T gives them away. Remember that $400 rebate you used to be able to get on a new PC by signing up for two years of MSN? That didn't appear to make sense, either, yet it ran for years.
For Apple TV to be successful as an IPTV set-top box, Apple has to convince us that we really want to download our video, NOT stream it. Not incidentally, this is also the key to iTunes' long-term success. Downloading makes much more efficient use of network resources, works fine on a copper wiring plant, and fits our emerging TiVoesque world view. Steve will tell us that we are busy dynamic people who really ought to plan our viewing. And enough of us will believe him to make AT&T's copper video service a credible success.
Beyond downloading video and audio, Apple's other technique for limiting AT&T's bandwidth hit, while simultaneously locking in the company as a customer for years and years, is building clever software services. The more processing that can be done in the data center the less data that will have to be carried between that center and the device. So AT&T will need a broad array of web services to offer its customers, most of whom will be using Windows computers, not Macs, which brings us back again to Safari for Windows -- a product Apple had no choice but to build.
This move isn't about taking down Microsoft, it isn't about making Macintosh computers the dominant computing platform, it IS about performing a massive cashectomy on AT&T. But to Apple's credit the company doesn't want anyone to see this as theft, but rather as a technical triumph, simply because when AT&T's exclusive is over in five years, Apple will want to do similar deals with all of AT&T's competitors.
Next week we'll have more on the iPhone, what it is and isn't and why. But before then, last week's column on the Whistlebox video-response application generated a lot of reader comments, many of them negative and some even nasty. Just to save you the trouble of reading them all, here is the gist: "Bob, you are lazy and/or stupid. Whistlebox is nothing new. There are plenty of products available right now that can do all Whistlebox claims and more. And even if there weren't, it would take at most a few days to build one, NOT two man-years. We are disappointed in you, Bob."
Wrong, wrong, wrong.
Of course there are Whistlebox competitors. User-generated video has been around since the days of CU-SeeMe. What the folks at Whistlebox have done isn't invent a technology so much as DEVELOP it. The distinction is clear: it is easy to cobble together a demo or prototype but altogether something else to build a tested production system that is easy to use and scales well. It would be close to impossible to ship in a few days or weeks a tested, refined application that DOES NOTHING (has a functioning interface but no underlying application engine), much less a tested, refined application like Whistlebox that actually does something. Anyone who claims otherwise has never shipped a product.
Whistlebox was designed and built for the business and advertising markets to be integrated by non-computer scientists and used by non-nerds. But it isn't just the usability that matters, it is the reporting and management tools that give the application value for business customers. Whistlebox isn't the first such application and won't be the last, but it is the first I have seen that is offered in a form that can be easily used by organizations of all sizes and levels of technical sophistication. That's what makes it unique so far. None of the other applications offered up by readers as examples of prior art can do this. None of them are turnkey. This lack of turnkey capability in those other products may be seen as an advantage, not a disadvantage, by my geekier readers. Yes, YOU can customize the heck out of them. But can your Mom?
Still, I was appalled by the nasty tone of many comments. Anonymity makes it so easy to criticize. At some point this column will probably have a video version. Then it is a short jump to video responses using a service like Whistlebox. When that happens, I wonder how many readers will be as critical on video as they are today in text?
I can't wait.