I.P. Freely

All the noise last week was about iCal, but the two most important announcements from Apple had nothing to do with the free calendar app.

The biggest story is that new Macs released after January will no longer boot Mac OS 9. This isn’t shocking, since it was obviously going to happen at some point, the only surprise is that it’s happening so soon. If we discount Mac OS X 10.0 (because it mostly stunk), Mac OS X has really only been out for about a year. And even Apple’s own estimates regarding OS X adoption put the number at under 20 percent:

“We expect that 20 percent of our entire installed base will be using Mac OS X by the end of this year, making it the fastest operating system transition in recent history,” said Steve Jobs, Apple’s CEO.

(Jobs keeps saying it’s “the fastest operating system transition in recent history”, but that’s just an empty marketing statistic. For one thing, what’s “recent”? For another, compared to what other OS transitions?)

The more interesting story, however, is Apple’s new “Design Freely” promotion — if you buy a new PowerMac G4 between now and the end of the year, you score a free copy of Adobe InDesign. Not discounted. Free. This is huge. Huge. But for some reason, it hasn’t gotten much press. Here’s why this offer is big news:

  1. It dispells any lingering doubt about whether Apple’s management actually believes that the lack of a native version of QuarkXPress is largely to blame for the disappointing PowerMac sales in the last year. That this is a direct shot at Quark is indisputable. There’s a reason that the offer is for InDesign, not for Photoshop or Illustrator.
  2. I can’t help but feel that this indicates that InDesign sales aren’t all that great. I don’t know what kind of money Adobe is getting from Apple for these copies of their flagship page layout app, but it can’t be anywhere close to InDesign’s $699 retail price. Not even in the ballpark. As far as I know, Adobe has never done anything like this before with one of their flagship publishing apps. Not even GoLive, which is also an also-ran. Like I said, there’s a reason that the offer is for InDesign, not for Photoshop or Illustrator.
  3. Apple clearly wants the pro design market to buy new PowerMacs now, and these new machines are not appealing enough on their own merits. Sure, the economy fucking stinks — but Apple hasn’t needed to resort to dramatic promotions to sell TiBooks. The perception is that the current G4’s just aren’t that much better than the models from two (or more) years ago.

It’s an interesting promotion, to say the least. It doesn’t mean much at all to anyone who doesn’t do serious page layout, but for those of us who do, it’s certainly tempting.

But irrestible? I don’t think so. For one thing, pro designers aren’t software cheapskates — it’s not the price tag for InDesign that has kept them from abandoning QuarkXPress. $699 for a software package certainly sounds like a lot of money to most people, but design software has been expensive ever since the desktop publishing revolution began. High prices didn’t keep Photoshop and Illustrator (and QuarkXPress, which retails for $899) from becoming runaway successes.

What has kept InDesign from putting Quark out of business is the simple fact that InDesign is not QuarkXPress. It does the same thing as XPress, and in a fairly similar way (as opposed to Quark’s previous but long-since defeated arch rival, PageMaker, which did the same thing, but in a very different way). But InDesign is not an XPress clone (nor was it intended to be). As a Quark user with five years of experience, I tried InDesign, and found it to be servicable, but frustrating. Frustrating because the little differences made me much less productive than I am in Quark.

Time is a precious commodity to most designers, especially those who work in page layout. Designers are almost always on deadline, and they will generally jump at anything that can save them time, such as faster hardware, or better software. I think that’s where InDesign has fallen short — it’s clearly not a revolutionary improvement over QuarkXPress. Even if it is a superior product (which I’m not sure is true), I’ve never seen anyone make the case that it is dramatically better (where by “dramatically better”, I mean “able to save you a ton of time”).

It’s also worth noting that the free copy of InDesign does not come bundled with the machines — you need to send in a coupon, then wait 6-8 weeks for delivery. This is quite understandable, but instant gratification can be a strong enticement.

However, Apple’s goal — to get designers to buy new PowerMacs before the end of the year — might happen even if the Design Freely promotion doesn’t succeed at all. Why? Because of that other announcement from last week, the one where Apple announced that new machines released in 2003 will only boot OS X. Even if you have no intention of ever switching to InDesign, if you’re a Quark user contemplating a new Mac, now looks like the time to buy.

This goes for any Mac user with even a vague inkling that they might want to keep the option to stick with Mac OS 9. And don’t think Apple doesn’t know it.