A Killer App For Apple?

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No, I don’t mean a great app that will make you want to switch to Apple. I mean an app that could kill Apple.

Not an app, actually. An OS. MacOS X, to be precise.

Imagine Intel and AMD and Microsoft having a joint press conference to tell you that Hammers and Prescotts would only boot under Windows XP. You use Windows NT or 98 or Windows 2000 or even Linux, not any more, you’re not. Either the OS goes or you just bought yourself a very expensive paperweight.

How would you feel about that?

This is exactly what Apple is going to do in a couple months with their new Macs.

Lemmings, March!

Until about a year ago, the OS for Macs was a descendant of the original MacOS that debuted in 1984; the last being MacOS 9. If you ask most Apple owners why they’ve stuck with Macs, I think you’d find that the deep-down core reason for many if not most is this undying love for MacOS.

We’re not talking about the kind of shallow, fleeting love that leads to marriage; we’re talking SERIOUS love here. 🙂

This level of feeling about an OS is not at all common or even comprehensible to Windows users. Bill Gates doesn’t love Windows as much as many of these people love MacOS, much less the rest of us.

About a year ago, after a few failed attempts, Apple came up with something completely different: a Unix-based OS that incorporated many modern features long used by Windows folks but not doable in the old MacOS. They called it MacOS X.

MacOS X has two operational modes; the new one and “Classic” mode; which emulates the old MacOS and in theory is supposed to let you run all your old MacOS programs.

Sort of like a software equivalent of AMD Hammer.

However, unlike Hammer, which certainly will run 32-bit applications flawlessly, Classic mode in MacOS X, while pretty good considering, has hardly been perfect so far.

Even those who like MacOS X often have MacOS 9 available for use in a dual-boot system, and sometimes find the need to go from X to 9 to get a particular task done. Driver support isn’t 100%, so people sometimes end up with equipment that have OS X drivers, but not 9 drivers, or vice versa.

As you might expect, a new OS often doesn’t run very quickly on older systems, and any emulation mode will be even slower.

As you might also expect from the Windows side, many commercial operations aren’t exactly hogwild about changing their corporate OS. There are plenty of Windows NT shops still out there.

It’s actually even worse on the MacOS side. While love is less of a factor, operability of key applications is critical.

For instance, graphics production still remains an area where Macs constitute a disproportionate share of the computers in use. If you’re talking Macpublishing, you’re talking Photoshop and Quark XPress. A MacOS X version of Photoshop just came out a few months ago. There is no MacOS X version of Quark XPress, and won’t be until about January, and never mind the industry of plug-ins for it.

Last, but not least, you have an awful lot of people who don’t want to hear anything about MacOS X and for whatever reason just want to run MacOS 9.

In the Windows world, up to now, similiar situations have not presented much of a problem. Some upgrade their OS, more probably get upgraded when they buy a new computer. There are certainly some problems associated with running old Windows programs on newer OSs, but worst comes to worst, one can always install a dual-boot system, or just reformat and reinstall the older OS. If you wanted to, you could still install at least the later versions of DOS on your near-3 GHz PIV machine.

It’s a different world in Apple Valley, though. The Man says go to OS X, and if you lemmings won’t, no new machines for you.

So what if it messes up your business? So what if Classic mode doesn’t work quite right for you? So what if you just don’t want to? Just whom do you think is boss here, lemming?

This is the freedom promised by those who made that now-infamous 1984 SuperBowl ad?

Do you know why Apple thinks it can get away with this? Because it is a true monopoly in its small and shrinking niche, and the x86 world is not.

A Loaded Deck

If you want to see a Mac fan go wild, just use the two preceding paragraphs above.

The Mac fan will say, “No, no, no, Microsoft (occasionally, Intel) is a monopoly. Apple is too small to be a monopoly.”

Wrongamundo on both counts, and I’ll explain why.

Imagine the x86 and Mac markets are card games.

There’s lots of people playing at the x86 card game, but a few are much bigger than others. Microsoft is there, and out of a deck of thireen spades, it has twelve of them (some penguin has the other one). Intel is there, and out of thirteen hearts; it has eleven, and somebody wearing green has the other two.

There’s no doubt Microsoft and Intel have a lot of spades and hearts, but how much good it does them depends on the card game being played.

If the game is Spades, MS is in really good shape and Intel is not. If the game is Hearts, vice versa. If it’s another card game, either or neither may be in good shape, and somebody else could win the hand.

You can say MS and Intel dominate in spades and hearts. You could even say they monopolize spades and hearts, and are pretty much unbeatable at Spades and Hearts. That doesn’t mean they win all the card games. If nothing else, MS and Intel sometimes play against each other. Sometimes the game has rules where a lot of one suit doesn’t help or even hurts.

Ask Rambus about Intel being a monopoly.

On the Mac side, though, Apple owns all the cards. It has all the spades and hearts, and all the diamonds and clubs, too. For that matter, they’re the only ones sitting at the table. They control the core hardware and the software. If you want a Mac, all roads lead to Apple. Period.

The only real difference is that the x86 pot is $100 and the Mac pot is $2.

Yes, Intel and Microsoft do cooperate sometimes, often quite a bit. But not always. If they did, then why will Windows support x64? Why do PIVs run Linux?

Bill Gates would likely give up his reproductive capacities if Intel would finagle their processors to just operate with the latest MS OS, and while that might be one hell of a trophy in Craig Barrett’s office, it will never happen because:

1) It would significantly reduce the appeal of buying Intel CPUs, thus
2) Greatly enhancing the appeal of buying AMD CPUs.

In contrast, the disgruntled Macster who wants a new machine has to abandon the Mac platform, and, horror of horrors, go to Windows.

Not that this is impossible, indeed, there are probably more ex-Mac users than Mac users today, not to mention the millions and millions of potential Mac users who may not be too happy with Windows, but find the Mac alternative worse.

What’s Going To Happen

Apple could well reverse the decision. Unlike revising their hardware, Apple will backtrack fairly quickly after a blunder.

If they don’t, if they’re lucky, somebody with warez skills will take pity on them and come up with a workaround, which will spread through the Mac world faster than an OE virus.

If they’re not so lucky, a pretty big chunk of Macsters are going to stop buying machines, at least for a while. As one of the Macpublishing concerns in the PC World article indicated, just buy one or two test boxes, and then wait a year or so.

This could leave Apple in deep trouble. They’re only selling 700-800K machines a quarter on average now. If sales drop to, say, 500,000 Macs a quarter (and Apple sales fluctuate under normal circumstances far more than average PC sales), it’s not hard at all to see Apple go into a death spiral. Microsoft is already threatening to pull Office for Mac due to poor sales. That sort of sales drop could make that a probability, and if MS goes, a lot of Mac software writers will consider doing the same.

Of course, Apple’s death has been predicted many times, but at the least, a drop to 500K would easily be the worst crisis Apple has ever faced. Five years ago, when people thought Apple was going down the tubes, they sold at worst 600K machines.

If Apple left well-enough alone, you’d probably have all but a relative few willingly migrate over in the course of time and upgrading. Meanwhile, hardware sales would be high enough for Apple to muddle along.

Maybe those MS threats to pull Office for Mac are more serious than we’ve been led to believe, and resistance to OS X is greater than has so far been indicated.

Or maybe Pied Piper Jobs just thinks Maclemmings will dance to any tune he wants to play.

Whatever the reason, it’s a risky tune to play, and it might prove to be his last if he insists on playing it.

Lessons

What should the rest of us learn from this?

Macsters often claim that Microsoft just steals all of Apple’s ideas. The threat to us is that they might steal this one, too. Indeed, a few fear that Palladium could be used to do just that.

To put it mildly, MS is looking for more and more money from what they produce. This would be an excellent way of doing so.

I pointed out earlier that Intel would never agree to such a change. That’s not entirely true. There’s one situation where they could: if AMD got on board, too.

And MS does have one rather nice piece of leverage on AMD.

Just how badly do you want tons of x86-64 support, and just how fast do you want it?

A possibility. Just a possiblity. Just something for some to keep an eye on.

Ed

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