And Apple has made it easier than ever for others to follow. For starters, OS X is based on Unix, the operating system common in workstation computers. "We're leveraging off existing standards," says Chris Bourdon, Apple's product-line manager for OS X. "Vendors can quickly incorporate our new technologies." That has made it easier for others, such as Sony and Philips, to incorporate Apple features.
DEVICES MEET UP. A good example of this strategy is a new collection of Apple technologies branded as Rendezvous, which allow your Mac to automatically sense and recognize any peripheral device. With Rendezvous, a printer connected either by cable or wirelessly will simply open up for use on your Mac.
Right now, that might not mean much, since the device must also have Rendezvous embedded. Slowly but surely, however, Apple is persuading some big manufacturers to incorporate the feature. By 2004, Philips' stereos will be able to wirelessly tap into an iPod and play songs from its database. In short, Apple sees Rendezvous as its next QuickTime, the original media player widely used on both Macs and PCs today.
Equally important, Apple is embracing key technologies developed by others. No longer does the outfit feel it has to build everything uniquely for the Mac. That represents a fundamental shift in strategy. "That's a bit different for us," says Joe Hayashi, a product-marketing director for Apple. "We're not a stand-alone company any more. We want our stuff to work with every other platform."
ANTICIPATING A STANDARD. An example is Bluetooth, a wireless technology that lets peripheral devices sync with computers. OS X is the first operating system to incorporate Bluetooth, but for once, Apple is following someone else's lead. The cellular industry has already embraced the technology -- Apple wants to get in ahead of other computer makers if Bluetooth takes off.
That's because Apple believes Bluetooth will become the standard for wirelessly accessing Net-based databases, especially in companies. Indeed, Apple sees the day when hybrid devices combining phones and PDAs become the norm. From these gizmos, users will not only access contacts and appointments but stock prices and sports scores in real time as well. They'll obtain this information through PCs and the Net with Bluetooth. "The latest phones have become full-blown organizers, and we think you'll see a lot of more of that type of stuff," says Hayashi.
Apple's embrace of Bluetooth is a wise move. Jobs & Co. can no longer afford to keep the Mac in a universe of its own. Work and play have become increasingly collaborative. Macs must be able to work on any network, share data with any computer -- otherwise they'll truly become obsolete, as the much-beloved Amiga did a generation ago.
ATTACKING KEY PROBLEMS. It's also a move that makes good business sense. Apple is much smaller -- by design -- than it was in the 1990s. It has no choice but to focus its innovative prowess in areas where it can most distinguish itself. That means solving problems that have stumped the rest of the industry and are holding back the growth of personal computers.
Apple's new iSync technology addresses one such problem: the hassle of syncing a common database of information, such as contacts and appointments, across various electronic devices. Windows has nothing like iSync. From a single panel, iSync lets you update information between your Mac or the Internet and a cell phone, PDA, or iPod. You can also correlate info stored in an Internet-based database, though to do so you'll have to have a .Mac account, Apple's Internet and data-storage service, which costs $100 a year. For the price, you can keep a master database of information and update it across devices, whether PDA, iPod, cell phone, or hybrid cell-phone PDA.
What all this adds up to is that Apple has become a much wiser and more flexible outfit than it was a decade ago -- heck, even five years ago. It's sifting through the heady and confusing stream of new technology -- both its own and others' -- to give the Mac a portfolio of features that will keep it fun, useful, and ahead of the curve. 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