Forbidden fruit

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Mac

Apple Computer made two moves recently that could bode well for its sales to the U.S. government. But don't ask Apple officials what either move means for their overall federal strategy. It's still a secret.

First, the company hired Ron Police, a 17-year sales veteran at Oracle, to be its new vice president for federal sales. It also released the latest version of its operating system, Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger, which received generally positive reviews in April. Like its OS X brethren, this edition is based on Unix, one of the government's favored platforms, especially for supercomputing.

Apple wants to move more aggressively into the federal market, said Susan Prescott, the company's vice president for worldwide pro markets. But she declined to discuss strategy or plans, citing Apple policy.

For the same reason, she also declined to give sales figures for federal contracts. She recommended looking at Apple's past to determine where the company might be headed.

That could prove difficult. Along with Bigfoot and the Bermuda Triangle, Apple's federal sales strategy is elusive and, some believe, mythical. When asked about it, Charlie Wolf, an analyst with Needham and Co., a New York investment bank, said, "Whoa! That's a nonstarter."

Wolf and other analysts agree that Apple's entire federal sales would look like rounding errors on a balance sheet from Microsoft or most Unix firms.

"Apple is just not a player in the federal market," Wolf said. "And they should be because they have some great stuff."

Apple may have missed its best chance to take a stronger role in government, Wolf said. By now, agencies have essentially standardized their operations on the Microsoft Windows platform, leaving little room for rivals.

"It's probably just a terribly difficult nut to crack," he said.

Macs can run most of the bread-and-butter applications, such as Microsoft Office and Oracle software, that the federal government uses. Macs' stability, security, performance and cost match and sometimes outperform their Windows and Unix rivals.

Is this enough to inspire the same loyalty in government procurers as it does in Apple's core markets? Apple officials won't say. Only hindsight will tell.

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