Not far from the tree

For federal Macintosh users, the paltry $150 million investment Microsoft Corp.
recently made in Apple Computer Inc. is hardly the deal of the century.


Initially, there was an emotional reaction to the news, perhaps sparked by the weird
image of a gigantic, grinning Bill Gates peering out from a large-screen monitor over
Steve Jobs and the crowd attending the MacWorld trade show.


But strip away the fables and shared myths of the computer industry and look at the
Apple-Microsoft deal in the hard light of someone who must make a wise investment in
information technology using public dollars. What you'll find is there's still plenty of
uncertainty surrounding the long-term future of the Mac--and Apple itself.


Two of the big players in this drama, while widely reported to have staked much in
Apple's survival, have risked little but potentially gained a lot. Microsoft protects a
valuable piece of business as the largest supplier of applications for the Mac operating
system. Now future Macs will ship with Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser--a blow to
Netscape Communications Corp. Microsoft also gets an ally in its Java war with Sun
Microsystems Inc.


That's not a bad basket of goodies for $150 million, about the cost of litigating
patent disputes with Apple and antitrust disputes with the Justice Department.


Larry Ellison, chairman and chief executive officer of Oracle Corp., is now an Apple
board member. His job is to hold his nose and stomach the presence of technology from the
nonvoting Microsoft. Oracle, nominally in the Sun Java camp, gets to hedge its bets on the
future of Internet applications.


And Apple? It gets a stock price boost and some borrowed time, thanks to the perception
that it's somehow back in the game. But it still faces the daunting challenge of raising
its market share for products with a uniqueness that is more and more difficult to
discern.


On the other hand, Mac users are confident that the latest version of Office 98 will be
available to them about the same time it becomes available to PC users.


As Dendy Young, president of Government Technology Services Inc. and the original
reseller of Macs to the federal government, noted, this will ease the pressure on agencies
using Macs to switch to PCs running Windows.


Hear that, NASA?


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