Safari, Not Leopard, is the Real News at Apple Show

Apple CEO Steve Jobs must have smiled knowingly when his announcement about a Windows Web browser got more applause than any of the features he just demonstrated for the next version of Mac OS X. Despite ostensibly dedicating a speech Monday to Mac OS X 10.5 "Leopard," Jobs had an ulterior motive to show off Apple's real platform for the future. And getting Safari running on Windows is just the first step to realizing that vision.

But first, Leopard. A year ago, Jobs promised he would one day reveal a number of "secret" Leopard features, but Monday's feature-complete revelations about the upcoming OS were lacking anything truly new or exciting. The takeaway here is that Leopard, quite clearly now, is another evolutionary update to Mac OS X and not a revolutionary, major update.

Why Apple would claim otherwise is steeped in the company's vaunted secrecy-based marketing, and Apple uses just a few regularly-scheduled and impromptu events to launch major new products and make other announcements. Given its decision to ignore Leopard at January's MacWorld event--the company focused instead on the iPhone--Apple had little choice but to cart out Leopard this week at its annual Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) show and hope that Jobs could wow the crowd yet again.

Instead, Jobs discussed just ten Leopard features, five of which he had previously highlighted at last years' WWDC event. Dismissing a feature called Boot Camp, which has been available in public beta form for a year, Jobs only talked up three truly new features: A new desktop, a new Finder (the Mac version of Explorer), and Quick Look, a document preview feature that, frankly, could have been lumped in with the new Finder. In short, there was very little interesting aside from the standard Apple eye candy.

Despite the amount of time spent discussing Leopard in the keynote, it's clear to me that Leopard is not really the main event at the show, nor is it the primary platform that Apple is really pushing going forward. No, that honor goes to Safari, Apple's Web browser, and its underlying rendering technologies. During the keynote, Jobs made two Safari-related announcements. First, Apple released a beta version of Safari for Windows, and this Web browser product is now available for free download. Jobs claimed that Safari already has about 5 percent market share on the Web, third behind Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE) and Mozilla Firefox. But I don't think shipping a Windows version of Safari has anything to do with market share, per se. No, Jobs has something more dramatic in mind for Safari.

That's because Safari now sits at the center of Apple's plan to support third party developers who want to create iPhone-compatible applications. This was the second Safari announcement: Previously, Apple had said that it would not open up the iPhone to developers due to security concerns. But at his WWDC keynote, Jobs revealed that Apple would in fact allow developers to create near-native iPhone applications that run on top of, you guessed it, Safari. These applications will use Web 2.0 technologies like Ajax and will look and feel almost exactly like the native iPhone applications that only Apple is allowed to create.

Now you can see why Apple porting Safari to Windows is so important: Most iPhone developers, like most iPhone users, will be running Windows, and not Mac OS X. And for them to create iPhone applications, they will need a version of the iPhone runtime environment. That environment is Safari. If Apple can get even a small percentage of Windows desktop users and all iPhone users to adopt Safari, it will have created a next-generation Web-based computing platform that is far more compelling, and has a potentially larger user base, than the PC market itself. It's an astonishing strategy. And you read about it here first.

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