Think Different and Switch
why Apple should move the Mac and MacOS to Wintel hardware
by Joshua Daniel Thorpe

There are many rumors floating around in cyberspace, and much speculation by Macintosh columnists, regarding a switch by Apple to Intel-compatible hardware. The most savory "insider information" has it that Apple is maintaining a feature-complete version of MacOSX for Intel hardware concurrent with the latest releases for PowerPC. Meanwhile, Mac pundits have been speculating that Apple can't avoid making an Intel-compatible Macintosh if they want to maintain price/performance parity with Wintel systems. While I fervently hope that the rumor is true, I disagree with the sentiment of the soothsayers when it comes to one aspect of their commentary.

The opinion columns tend to share a common view: Apple should make a proprietary Macintelosh system and tie MacOSX to their own hardware, preventing Wintel PC users from running MacOSX just as they currently prohibit PowerMac clones. The reasoning goes like this: PowerMac clones almost killed Apple, so Wintel PCs running MacOSX would as well. I strongly disagree, and think that Apple should make MacOSX run on the open PC platform and make their own hardware IntelPC-compatible. A libertarian MacOS Xintel would gain many more users in an open market than Apple alone could wrangle up with proprietary hardware, and Apple would eventually increase their own hardware sales as a result. The dynamics of the current situation are different from those of the PowerMac clone era, and Apple actually stands to gain market share for both their software and hardware from the release of a MacOS Xintel.

The original effort to open MacOS to third-party hardware was poorly conceived and poorly implemented. Rather than create an open PowerPC architecture that would have made possible truly unique PowerPC systems, Apple continued to hitch MacOS to their own hardware. Third parties were stuck using Apple's chipsets in their own systems, hence the label "clones." Often the only thing differentiating clones from Apple's systems was the eschewing of non-essentials like video input in favor of a lower price. Since the market was simply being given rebadged Apples, and since the processor was still not a Pentium (making for a difficult switch from Windows), few people aside from Mac users took notice. The clones only ate into Apple's sales, doing nothing to increase the use of MacOS in the PC world and severely decreasing Apple's profitability.

The current situation is much different. We are now looking at the possibility of Apple using Wintel hardware, rather than trying to force the rest of the world to use PowerPC. Apple also makes the most outstanding consumer PCs on the market—stylish, compact, and feature-rich, they are a far cry from the beige boxes Apple used to sell. With MacOS Xintel, Apple not only would no longer have to combat the Megahertz Myth, they would make it possible for owners of Wintel systems to switch to using MacOS on their PCs, and make it simple to switch from Wintel to Apple hardware by having native Windows-on-Apple to ease the transition. Full interoperability such as this would increase the use of MacOS, increase the viability of the MacOS platform, and increase the allure of Apple's own hardware. This would culminate in an increase in system sales for Apple.

With more people using MacOS, we would see more programs and device drivers ported to MacOS. MacOS users would finally have choice in sound cards, more choice in video cards, hardware DVD-playback solutions, more professional add-on solutions (like Canopus products, for which there are few, if any, Mac equivalents), and so forth. This would further increase the viability of MacOS, which in turn would increase the viability of Apple's hardware. This is something that simply will not happen if Apple chooses to keep their hardware proprietary. By doing so, they would ensure that MacOS remains a niche system attracting only a handful of third party products—a trend that is costing Apple some of its user base. I do not think a proprietary Macintelosh system could attract enough additional users to significantly increase the market share of MacOS. In fact, it would probably only increase the rate at which people leave Apple hardware for Windows or Linux on the open PC. So will staying with the languishing PowerPC platform.

Apple, like any other business, exists to make money. Their primary goal is not to make everyone happy, nor should it be. I do not propose the MacOS Xintel policy as pie-in-the-sky...something that will give a few geeks exactly what they want. I suggest this shift in marketing strategy as perhaps the only thing that can keep Apple from continuing their gradual slide into oblivion. Before the advent of Windows95, Apple accounted for around 10% of new PC sales. They now account for roughly 3%, and as far as I can tell are losing as many users to Windows or Linux as they are gaining (the "switchers" phenomenon works both ways). With the Wintel experience being so similar to that of Mac, and the hardware and software choices being more liberal, how much longer can Apple stay profitable selling proprietary hardware, even if it does have Intel inside?

Mr. Jobs, it is time you heed your own advice: Think Different and Switch.

©2002 Joshua Daniel Thorpe, all rights reserved, if you pirate this I will hunt you for sport

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