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Where Apple Doesn't Always Play Nice

By Charles Haddad Is Apple bullying its playmates in the Mac sandbox? It controls the sand and the box, too -- in a way Microsoft can only envy. It decides everything from how an application will run on a Mac to the speed of the machine's microprocessors. In addition to hogging the territory, is Apple also taking unfair credit for innovations?

I raise the question now because some small developers are crying foul. They're accusing Apple of freely copying third-party programmers' innovations into its own software. "Apple should work with independent developers, rather than taking everything in the house," Rob McNair-Huff, publisher of the popular Mac Net Journal Web site, wrote recently.

McNair-Huff has a legitimate beef. Examples abound of Apple imitating the best third-party software. Take one of its upcoming programs, iChat, to be released in late summer as part of the OS X upgrade. As described by Apple's own press release, it sounds strikingly familiar to Adam Iser's Adium chat software. And other small developers could make a strong case that the ideas behind recent Apple programs such as iTunes for digital music, iMovie for video editing, and iPhoto for digital photography were, shall we say, inspired by others.

CALLING THE KETTLE BLACK? I'd argue, in fact, that many if not most of the improvements of the legacy operating system, OS 9, were cribbed from other developers. Examples include such popular features as spring-loaded folders, hierarchical menus, and tabbed windows on the bottom of the screen. The late Now Software pioneered all these features.

Apple's imitations can be downright painful to small developers, since its knockoffs, such as iChat and iTunes, are released as free features within its operating system. That weakens the market for the original software from third parties.

Microsoft, of course, has long been chastised for similar behavior. In fact, Apple waged a losing, nearly decade-long battle against the Colossus of Redmond in the 1990s, accusing it of incorporating Mac features into Windows. Several Windows developers have sued Microsoft, too, for its alleged copycat tactics.

INNOVATION'S MARCH. Still, I don't think developers' complaints about Apple have much bite. Apple may dominate its turf, but it's not a particularly big one in the vast playground of the PC market.

Here's the real test of harm: Has Apple's borrowing stymied innovation? I see no sign of it. In fact, despite Apple's growing number of knockoffs, Mac software development appears to be entering a second golden age. New software for OS X has been exploding recently, especially during the past couple of months. Apple says more than 3,000 OS X programs are now available, a figure that doesn't include shareware and freeware. Best of all, OS X has inspired new developers, especially from the Unix community, to publish for the Mac.

And here's a hard truth. Given its resources, Apple can often make an imitation that's better than the original. Its versions tend to be more polished, easier to use, and more stable. These improved versions of good ideas draw more users to the Mac platform.

EXTENDED GRUDGES. That's certainly true of iTunes, iMovie, and iPhoto. I suspect iChat will also have great appeal, especially among those who like instant-messaging but not AOL. Such mass introductions of programs like iChat help expand the appeal of Apple's platform -- and that helps every Mac developer.

I'm not letting Apple off the hook here. The company still has to play nice, and it often doesn't ?- especially with small developers. They sometimes wake up to find that, after being snubbed by Apple for months, the company has suddenly released its own version of their software.

No wonder many developers nurture extended grudges against Apple. This is one area where Microsoft has excelled: It has worked hard to keep many, although certainly not all, Windows developers happy.

BE LIKE PCs. Apple would do well to use its Macs as a platform to showcase the best of third-party software. It's already doing so to some extent: The latest Macs are shipping with OmniGroup's excellent shareware outliner and graphing programs. But here again, PCs have done better, typically shipping with far more programs than the Mac.

This is one area where Apple should mimic its PC competitors. Showcasing more third-party programs on Macs would illustrate that there's room enough for everyone in the Apple playground. Haddad, Atlanta-based

correspondent for BusinessWeek, is a long-time Apple Computer buff. Follow

his weekly Byte of the Apple column, only

on BusinessWeek Online

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