Never mind the OS X

[You can also read this on the BBC News website]

Back in 1976, the Sex Pistols were playing their first gigs, and Joe Strummer went off to form The Clash after playing support to them.

At the same time, Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak and Ronald Wayne set up a company to sell the Apple I computers they were building by hand in a garage.

Ronald Wayne, the forgotten “third founder”, did not think the company was going anywhere and sold out after a few months.

He was wrong, as Apple started strong and grew quickly, largely thanks to the innovative hardware design of Steve Wozniak’s Apple II computer and the marketing and promotion skills of Steve Jobs.

Punk seemed about to change the world, or at least it did to me at 15 years old.

The music is still with me, but the Apple computers I have used on and off since I first touched a Mac in 1985 have changed my life much more.

Although I sometimes forget how much influence they have, every now and then there is a reminder.

Earlier this week I was lucky enough to see Jane Chapman play the harpsichord at a London club. She performed a variety of pieces, including one written by jazz guitarist Mark Wingfield that almost moved me to tears.

As she played, video art was projected onto the opened lid of her harpsichord in a sort of Velvet Underground/Bach crossover.

It was cool, and nobody really noticed when a Mac desktop appeared between videos as the engineers switched inputs.

I couldn’t help thinking that if a Windows desktop had been revealed then there would have been a collective gasp and some of the more sensitive members of the audience would have fainted.

Apple, uniquely among computer companies, is cool with those who know nothing about operating systems, care little for user interface guidelines and neither know nor understand why moving from PowerPC to Intel chips could matter.

Of course Apple has had its problems, and there were times during the early 1990s when it seemed unlikely that it would be around to celebrate its quarter-century, never mind a 30th birthday.

But it changed, and survived.

These days the company is identified with the many variants of the Macintosh computer, including the Powerbook I am writing on now, and the iPod portable music player.

Profits are healthy, and the share price, although down recently, is a lot healthier than it was two years ago.

Yet Apple faces a range of problems, some of which could have a significant impact on its future direction and perhaps even its survival.

In particular, the importance of iPod sales and the associated iTunes music store mean that legal challenges from Apple Corps and the French government are especially dangerous.

Apple Corps is currently suing Apple Computer over trademark infringement, claiming that a 1991 agreement that the computer firm would stay out of the music business has been breached.

If the former Beatles have their way, Apple could find itself paying serious damages for trademark infringement or even having to change the way it sells music online.

The French government wants Apple to open up the copy control technology it uses to stop anything but an iPod from playing songs downloaded from the music store.

This would break the armlock that Apple currently holds over its customers, and severely damage long-term profitability.

At the moment it isn’t clear how Apple will respond to these and other challenges.

The key to understanding the company is to realise that it is not a software company like Microsoft.

Apple makes the computers and portable music players it sells, it doesn’t just provide the programs to run on them.

Until relatively recently, it was more like IBM or DEC or the other old-time computing companies, but now that the downloading business is so important to its plans, I think that Apple is more like Sony than anyone else.

After all, Sony makes all sorts of hardware, from consumer electronics to computers, and it has its own content business, making films and distributing music.

Sony also finds it hard to deal with the conflict between the desires of its hardware people to make really cool systems that can play any content and give people freedom, and a content division that wants to limit and control what people can do.

For Apple the situation is even worse because it doesn’t actually own any of the music or videos that it sells from its music store, so it has to work extra hard to build relationships with record companies.

For Steve Jobs, who recently became the largest individual shareholder in Disney after it bought Pixar Animation Studios, a solution would seem to present itself. He could bring together the two separate areas of his working life, and unify Disney and Apple.

That way he would have the content and the platform, and he wouldn’t be quite so reliant on the agreement of others to make it all work.

As one of the few people who truly understands both the computing world and the content world, he might even show Sony how to make a success of an integrated company.