Could Obama's Mac Force Different Thinking?


It has been awhile since the U.S. has had a celebrity president. As the president-elect prepares to take the job, many of us are starting to wrap our minds around what that means. Generally, it means influence and a popular interest in the products and tools he uses that goes beyond any other U.S. chief executive we have had for some time. Our first inkling of this was with his BlackBerry and whether he would be allowed to keep it. Then it was his Zune, which seemed to light up the Internet with discussion of whether his loyalty to Apple was wavering. This got me thinking about his Mac. Obama could become one of the most powerful Mac advocates in the history of Apple, driving Macs into government and business. But that is definitely a dual-edged sword; Apple's margins are probably not consistent with what the U.S. government and its partners are willing to pay for PCs. Let's talk about how Obama's Mac could change desktop PCs and Apple forever.


Employee Choice


Every few months, the analysts that cover desktop PCs get together and discuss the trends they have been seeing. Largely due to Apple's success, these analysts have increasingly been pointing to that company as a bellwether that is driving the other firms to focus more on design for both their consumer and corporate lines. Another trend we have been talking about is employees and departments making their own PC choices, either using personal funds or the increasingly dispersed departmental P&L responsibility to allow personal PC choices into the company.


I mentioned a few weeks ago that I started tracking Macs moving into large enterprises in this manner. During a time of massive economic shortfalls, IT's ability to resist the associated cost savings or push back against the organizations that actually have budget authority is increasingly more limited.


Now, we have a U.S. president who likely will be bringing his own Mac into the job. It is hard to believe that he will restrict others from this privilege, given his strong position against favoring the rich and powerful. He could be a harbinger of things to come as his own choice is first allowed and then emulated by others who want to be more like their charismatic leader.


The trend could move rather quickly once the approvals are in place and Apple could see a ramp-up in PC sales that the company has never before enjoyed. It could also create some interesting side effects.


Apple Margins


If you have ever done business with the government, as I have, you learned quickly that the process truly sucks. The government, to avoid any implication of windfall profits, cuts a very aggressive deal. And just to ensure no one gets a better one, it puts in most favored nations clauses, ensuring that it always gets the best discount out there. This pretty much means that vendors sell to the government at near cost and, because it is the government, in high numbers, which can do some rather interesting and painful things to average margins.


Then, as if that weren't painful enough, it requires rooms, and I'm not exaggerating here, of documentation and certifications. The vendor must assure its ethnic mix, assure its vendors, and even make sure it isn't doing business with the wrong companies or countries. And that is only the tip of iceberg when it comes to the massive amount of expensive hoops a government vendor has to jump through.


Even if just government employees are allowed to purchase their own products, it's hard to believe that the new CTO won't negotiate volume deals so that these underpaid government workers can better afford what they purchase.




Another common theme in these analyst meetings is how Apple doesn't take the security of its platform seriously. Much like Microsoft until this decade, Apple appears to be in a state of denial when it comes to security. It recently flip-flopped on whether Apple users needed antivirus or antimalware in general. With the U.S. president using a Mac, this cavalier attitude to security now has a high-profile risk. The resources focused on compromising Obama's laptop will truly be national in scope as other governments try to use his relatively unsecure laptop, compared to NSA-certified laptops, as a way into otherwise secure government systems. Attacks are clearly shifting to more generic browser-based methods and Trojans, according to a recent Finjan report. Some work on the Mac and others may make the Mac a carrier.


In addition, as the use of Apple notebooks spreads in government, the likelihood of a major breach goes up astronomically and unacceptably. This could have two effects: Macs could be banned, or a requirement could be put in place that Apple comply with government policy and build TPMs, fingerprint readers and card readers, and put tracking software like Absolute's on the machines that are sold to government. In any case, it will put a massive security focus on the platform.


In short, all of this could force Apple to step up to its full responsibility of protecting users against an increasingly hostile Internet world.


Wrapping Up


The President-elect will bring a lot of changes. One of the most interesting may be the freedom in both government and large businesses to allow employees to choose their hardware. These choices could benefit Apple greatly but also force it to conform to a number of practices that have both plagued and benefited PCs over the years. In the end, the Mac, for the first time since the early days of Apple, could once again be mainstream, with all that that represents. I wonder if, in the end, Apple and Mac users will see this as a good thing.