It wasn't entirely unexpected, but Apple's decision to put the Xserve out to pasture says more about the future of the data center than it does about the success or failure of one particular product line.
The company announced this week that it will stop selling the Xserve at the end of January, directing customers to the Mac Pro or Mac Mini running Snow Leopard Server instead. These may not be perfect solutions, but to be fair, neither was the Xserve, if market penetration is any indication.
Pundits, including myself, have long questioned Apple's commitment to the enterprise, and for good reason. While the industry in general drove toward commodity x86 platforms that stressed low cost over advanced engineering, Apple seemed stuck in a previous era of proprietary hardware/software combinations that were technical marvels, but expensive and tough to integrate into non-Apple enterprise settings. The strategy seemed odd, but in hindsight, that was only because we were looking at it strictly from an enterprise perspective.
What few people saw coming was a completely re-imagined enterprise in which hardware platforms take a back seat to innovative service and application offerings. As technology has progressed, it's become clear that this development is being tailored less and less to the trusty desktop that has dominated knowledge workers' interaction with institutional data for the past three decades.
But now that younger workers are becoming increasingly enamored with their iPhones, iPads and other mobile devices, the prospect of a lifetime tethered to desk seems pretty bleak indeed. Gartner pegs 2010 tablet sales at 19.5 million, driven largely by the iPad, so it's small wonder that enterprises are scrambling to integrate mobile services and applications into their data infrastructures.
And it's here that Apple seems to be concentrating its efforts. The company has contracted with Unisys, and is reportedly in talks with other firms, to provide integration, maintenance and other services to bring Apple products into the enterprise. Note that the focus here is finally on integration, not total domination, of the enterprise.
Chalk all of this up to a belated recognition that Apple lost the hardware wars to Wintel many years ago. To its credit, though, the company refocused on what it does best: innovation. By concentrating on what users need, first for their entertainment and then for productivity, the company is poised to remake the way the world interacts with the digital universe. It's probably even a safe bet to say that the impact this is having on the enterprise is an afterthought in the Apple boardroom. By focusing on what people want, the company has the leverage to bring institutions along for the ride, willingly or not.
Some may find this strategy a little off-putting, but in the end, it's hard not to be impressed by the way Apple has put itself back in the game: not by fighting for the same old turf, but by moving to an entirely new playing field.