You remember when the U.S. Justice department filed a complaint against a little mom-and-pop outfit called Microsoft. The offence? Strong-arming PC-makers into bundling Internet Explorer with their Windows 95 operating systems. This practice was unfair for the makers of other Web browsers, and became more so as the lines between the Web browser Internet Explorer and the file browser Windows Explorer began to blur.
The story ended with Microsoft escaping the fate of being split into two slightly smaller companies, and rival browser Netscape forever condemned to the Internet for dummies, otherwise known as AOL.
Now, yours truly is the proud owner of a new PowerBook. So imagine this Mac fanatic's surprise when I wanted to change my default Web browser but discovered I could do it only from within Safari, Apple's own Web browsing app.
It's a sudden and seemingly arbitrary change from the Internet preferences panel that's been part of the Mac OS since 1997, and it smells of the same anti-competitive practices that landed Mr. Gates and company in court. But since Apple has such a small market share, nobody seems to care - that is, nobody but me!
I purchased my last Apple product in 1999 after carefully weighing the pros and cons of each particular hue of the new candy-coloured iMac computers available at the time.
Forget those conformist beige boxes, man! All that the World Wide Web has to offer can be viewed through a rainbow of translucent plastics. Who cares if we only have a 3.3 per cent share of the personal computer market? Our Macs are fashion statements, and we as Mac users a breed apart. Apple itself says so: We "think different"!
Now it's 2004, and the fruity colours of my iMac have been replaced by the cold steel of my new PowerBook - anodized aluminum to be exact. Likewise, brushed metal is all over Panther, Apple's latest and greatest operating system. And while this snazzy finish won't spoil, there is yet the faint but foul smell of something that has turned within.
Hey, I'm not saying Mac software hasn't gotten a lot better. iMovie has done for desktop video-making what PageMaker did for desktop publishing almost two decades ago. The iTunes Music Store is a shining beacon amid the stormy seas of illegal music downloads. (Too bad it's not available in Canada.) And GarageBand is poised to become the music creation software "for the rest of us."
But let's not forget that the driving force behind these revolutionary apps is Mac OSX, specifically its Darwin core and two magical words that come with it: "open source."
For the first time, our funky little Macs can be linked together to form big important UNIX supercomputers, and better yet, UNIX developers can now make big important software for our funky little Macs.
There's obviously going to be some overlap between Apple's own software and third-party creations, and this is where Apple too must learn to share. It's one thing if your accountant can't open the spreadsheet you did up for him in ClarisWorks, but quite another if your computer hides system-wide settings from you in programs you don't want to use and might prefer to do without.
For the moment, Apple's unfortunate placement of Internet settings is but a small impropriety, a baby misstep. But held up against the open source promise of OSX, it's still a step in absolutely the wrong direction. Apple needs to turn around right now, before it goes any further down that dangerous path - if it's still thinking different, that is.