On a recent visit to Apple Computer, I had an invigorating technical give-and-take about the Xserve G5 that made my day. But what kept me up that night was a question that stopped me in my tracks: What do I mean when I say "Apple's core constituency?"
I love to get caught saying something I wouldn't be caught dead saying. I admit, the phrase is utterly useless.
In my feeble defense, it's merely a black-and-white categorization of Apple customers that makes my homework easier. If you buy a Mac, you are either in the core constituency or you are not. If you're in, I can safely ignore you because this is not VideoWorld or QuarkWorld. If you're out, you are only interesting if you're a serious person who chose OS X to run software that also runs on Windows or AIX. While I pontificate about convergence as though the term is universally understood, Apple is making it happen -- without driving the process. They cook up good ideas, hand them to the market as products, and watch what happens. And that last part is key: Apple observes the market while its competitors go crazy twisting arms and erecting barriers to interoperation.
To my dismay, Apple itself uses the phrase "core constituency," which sometimes puts its engineers at odds with its marketing staff when explaining why a product exists. Before Xserve, Apple customers were tipping Power Macs on their sides and running them as servers. You could buy kits for this. Xserve takes up a lot less space than a tipped Power Mac, but the Power Mac is quieter and more expandable, so couldn't Apple's core constituency live without it? Customers have many, many places to go for storage arrays. So, did video editors really put in more votes for Xserve RAID than for analog video input and output or for something else that only Apple could give them?
In reality, Apple is mastering the art of assuming the shape a particular customer prefers to see. Creative professionals, sci/tech, and educational users kept Apple alive and expect royal treatment in return. I believe that Apple built a 1U form factor for existing customers, like musicians, that needed a machine that was ruggedized and laid out for a rack. It stumbled into more widespread use. Xserve's unplanned evolution from a skinny Power Mac to an enterprise server is clearest here: The original Xserve had an AGP (Accelerated Graphics Port) slot for workstation use; now it's gone. Apple also found that OS X was just right for customers who wanted the power and scalability of Unix but lacked the budget for IBM or the time for Linux. Then the open source community climbed on board, effectively adding thousands to Apple's software development staff.
Members of a core group feel recognized and protected, as though their preferred vendor exists to serve them alone. To those who only need PowerBooks, Apple is a notebook maker. If you make music or author DVDs, Apple is exclusively devoted to the needs of creative professionals. If you're in business, Apple puts high-density Unix servers and storage in the PC price range; they're a budding enterprise vendor. Pretty smart.
If I ever use the phrase "core constituency" again, slap me.