MacOS X86?

Ever since MacOS X emerged, there’s been occasional rumors that it would be fitted to x86 machines. In other words, a Mac OS for your PC.

They seem to be more than rumors now: Mac OS X86, code-named Marklar.

MacBackground

A lot of PC users know very little about the Mac and its users, so here’s a quick primer on them.

What Mac Users Think The Mac Is

The difference between a Mac user and a PC user is much like the difference between an architect and a construction worker. They have much different mindsets.

Image is much more important to the average Mac user than a PC user. He tends to view a Mac as an aesthetic Mercedes in a sea of Ford Tauruses, an elegant, well-designed, superior computer for elegant, design-conscious superior people.

The average PC user tends to look upon his machine as a glorified overcomplicated screwdriver. It’s a tool, not an expression of themselves. In the PC world, price and performance duke it out, and elegant aesthetic design not only isn’t in the ring; it isn’t even in the arena.

Yes, there are those who want to make their PCs beautiful, and indeed, this is a swiftly growing cottage industry. But even here, the design emphasis is more techno than conventionally aesthetic. Compare this typical techno design to the white curves of an iMac. The two have much different definitions of beauty.

It should also be noted that compared to the overall PC population, the techno-design folks are a relative few, just as design-conscious Mac users are a relative few in the personal computer world.

The desire for elegant beauty among Macsters is not limited to case design. Again, it’s a competition between perceived aesthetics versus functionality. MacOS is considered a “beautiful” OS and is loved by many for its beauty and elegance, or something like that. No one, not even Bill Gates, loves Windows like that; it’s just not perceived in those kind of terms.

To the average PC user, feeling passion for your OS is like feeling passion for your screwdriver. It’s possible but perverted.

Many Mac users also believe that the Mac is simply an all-around superior machine. Many believe that Apple uses components superior to those used in the PC world. They believe that these components are carefully selected to work optimally together. In short, a masterpiece of industrial design rather than a prefabricated house.

Ed

What the Mac Actually Is

To a PC type, the Mac is much like Starbucks coffee; a lot of image and little substance backing it up: a Mercedes with a Mercedes price on the outside, a Honda Civic engine and transmission inside.

Ten years ago, Apple could legitimately claim component superiority over the average PC. Those days are long gone. Today, most of what goes into a Mac are off-the-shelf PC components (and usually not the best performers at that) with a Mac driver. The only truly unique components in a Mac are the CPU and motherboard, and even the motherboard follows a lot of PC standards. Outside of an early adaptation of some emerging but not-there-yet PC technology, the core system usually represent trailing-edge technology.

Do components in Apple systems tend to get along better than in PC systems?

To some degree, yes, but that’s primarily due to two reasons. There are relatively few Mac-friendly components compared to PC components. MS has to support far more devices than Apple. On the one hand, the sheer number and diversity of components exponentially increases the number of combinations and thus the possibility of components that don’t play well together.

The sheer size of the PC market attracts those making cheapy PC components that may cut corners in hardware and software. Low-end PCs with low=end components will do worse than Apples, which generally use at least decent components. But then again, so does Dell.

On the other hand, all that PC component competition gives you faster improvements in technology at lower prices. The PC OEM market tends to take a lot of small, quick steps. Apple tends to take bigger steps once a year. This means losing ground for most of the year, then almost-catching up, again and again. Mac users know this, which creates a rather lop-sided pattern in Mac sales. Sales jump the quarter a product is introduced and the quarter thereafter, and really drop the quarter before a new product introduction. PC OEM sales historically show a small blip upward in the fall, and a bigger one for Christmas, but overall are much steadier than Apple sales.

Yes, Apple pays more attention to design than say, Dell, but users pay for that in many ways and not only in dollars. The iMac looks pretty, but try to expand it. Apple’s CPUs need far less cooling than x86 processors, but that’s largely due to them doing much less overall work than current x86 processors.

The MacOS Tax

Apple machines are priced higher than x86 machines. If you try to match up a Mac with an equivalent, say Dell, machine, you’ll usually find that the Apple machine costs a couple hundred more on the low-end, more on the high-end, a whole lot if you want a loaded box from Apple.

Outside of aesthetics, the higher price of Apple machines boils down to a tax for the privilege of running MacOS (MacOS X) rather than Windows.

Is it worth it? I’ve worked with both, and frankly, I don’t see what the big deal is, at least not anymore. Maybe that was true back in Windows 95 or even Windows 3.1 days, but in general, seems like six is one half-dozen of the other.

I wouldn’t writh in agony if I had to use a Mac all the time, but I wouldn’t be writhing in ecstacy, either.

But what do I know about computer elegance, style, class? I’m an uncultured low-life who thinks these things are glorified screwdrivers, for God’s sakes. :)

Macopoly

Mac users often rail about Microsoft being a monopoly. OK, Microsoft is pretty much a monopoly, and it abuses that monopoly power. But so is and does Apple.

Of course Apple is a monopoly. Granted, the segment of the PC market it monopolizes isn’t very big, but Apple owns it lock, stock, and barrel.

If you want to run MacOS, from how many companies can you buy a computer that will do that? End of story.

If you need further proof, Apple historically has much higher gross margin profits than any PC OEM. That’s what happens when you’re the sole supplier in your little niche.

If you don’t want Intel, you can buy AMD. If you don’t want Dell, you can buy from Compaq or a million other places.

Apple is the twenty-first century update of the Model T; you can buy any color so long as it’s black. You take whatever Apple offers, whether you need it or not, or you take nothing at all.

Let’s take serial ATA hard drives as an example. They will eventually replace parallel hard drives, but if you buy a mobo today, tomorrow, or for sometime to come, you don’t have to buy a SATA connector. Even if you do, mobos for quite some time to come will continue to have the old IDE connectors.

In the Apple world, you’ll probably not see SATA until fall 2003 or maybe even 2004, but more likely than not, once Apple goes SATA, by God, you’ll get SATA and nothing else in a new Mac. Apple speaks, MacMan obeys.

Ed

The Amazing Shrinking Computer Company

This paternalistic, proprietary approach hasn’t worked too well for Apple the last number of years. Yes, it owns this cozy little niche, but the niche is shrinking over time in both relative and absolute terms.

Right now, Apple has about 2.5% of the world PC market. As late as 1995, it had around 10%.

Perhaps the starkest comparison as to Apple’s decline is to compare its revenues to Dell’s:

Apple vs. Dell Revenues

(Apple FY used, equivalent Dell periods used)

Company
FY1995 Sales
FY2002 Sales
Increase/(Decrease)
Apple
11.1
  5.7
(49%)
Dell
  4.8
33.1
590%

Put another way, in FY1995, Apple sold close to 4.5 million computers while Dell sold around 2 million when
the total worldwide computer market was about 45 million computers

In FY2002, Apple sold 3.1 million computers in a worldwide market of about 130 million computers,
while Dell sold over 16 million computers.

Yes, Dell is a star, but if Apple had just kept pace with the PC industry between 1995 and now, it would be
selling over 13 million computers a year. Instead, it is selling a little over 3 million.

Ed

Trouble In Apple Valley

In the last couple years, the mystique is beginning to wear a bit thin even among hardcore Mac users. This has been especially true for those who use the Mac more as a productivity tool than as a cultural icon.

Over the past few years, a large performance gap has emerged between Macs and x86 machines. While the gap isn’t nearly as big as MHz would have you believe (the PowerPC does about a third more work per clock cycle than the Athlon, and about 60% more than the PIV), even after adjustments, knowledgable Mac users can’t even pretend the Mac comes close to x86 machines anymore for sheer performance.

Motorola, the owner of the PowerPC, simply has not kept up with x86 processors, nor seems to be making much effort to even try. This has left Mac power users devoutly wishing for AMD or really ABM (Anybody But Motorola) to give them a real CPU.

Motorola is not the only company that makes PowerPCs. The core technology is licensed to IBM, and IBM has done more with the PowerPC than Motorola.

IBM has come up with a 64-bit PowerPC processor for its own machines that in many ways can be called MacHammer. While it’s hardly an AMD Hammer clone, there’s a lot of similarities between the two.

IBM is now trying to sell a MacClawhammer to Apple.

This should considerably narrow (but not remove) the performance gap.

Getting Leverage

Apple has so far been rather reluctant to officially accept this chip. The most likely reason for this is that IBM has Apple by the short hairs, and is probably pulling on the price.

Motorola has nothing to compete against IBM’s product. Where else can Apple go, or even pretend to go?

The only plausible competition are the x86 processors. You can’t threaten to go x86 if you don’t have an x86-compatible OS.

Apple also has other fish to fry. MS has Apple by the short hairs, too, with MS Office being the de facto standard on Macs. Every once in a while, MS tugs and says that maybe MacOffice isn’t worth their time and effort anymore. Apple needs some leverage here, too.

With an x86-compatible OS handy, Apple is at least in a position to say, “You pull out of our market, we pull into yours.”

Marketing To Thieves?

This article suggests that MacOS X could be positioned as the OS alternative for those who want to preserve their right to steal, a right threatened by Palladium/Le Grande.

Apple is contemplating the move because it sees an opportunity to win market share from Windows when Microsoft introduces Palladium, a version of its operating system that implements digital rights management. Palladium could prevent users from copying any copyright material, such as music or video, without the explicit permission of the rights owner.

Marklar would have no such limitations built in, allowing Apple to appeal to Windows users frustrated by the restrictions on how they use their computers. Apple has taken the stance that users should be free to use their computers how they wish, and that it is up to copyright holders to encourage people to use them responsibly.

Talk about stealing market share.:)

Ed

Which Way Is Apple Pointing The Gun?

A DRM-less MacOS X86 could get MS very nervous under the right circumstances. However, these circumstances are quite unlikely to occur.

MS may well start putting in Palladium components left and right into OSs fairly shortly, and Intel may do the same with LeGrande, but putting them in and turning them on while removing the “off” switch are two entirely different matters.

It is extraordinarily unlikely that either MS or Intel will make Palladium use mandatory until at least the US government says so. Should that be the case, Apple will have no choice but to do the same.

Even if MS imposes Palladium without US government endorsement and MacOS X86 truly becomes Thefters’ Choice, do you really think the average PC bandit is going to buy this? They’ll just stop taking MS OSs and start stealing Apple’s. MacOS X86 would certainly hit the top of the Warez Hit Parade, but I don’t think that’s what Apple wants. :)

The real problem, though, is that MacOS X86 opens Pandora’s box for Apple. Up to now, people who love MacOS have had to buy into Steven Job’s vision of what a PC should be like. What will they do when they have the freedom to buy into Michael Dell’s vision of what a PC should be, and it costs them less?

Can elitism and design survive against performance and price, even among Mac users?

Apple tried allowing other companies to offer Macclones, then found it couldn’t compete against them. The competitors back then were midgets compared to what Apple would have to deal with in the x86 world, and the more expensive (and profitable) the Apple machine is, the more likely it would get killed in any x86 matchup.

I’m sure Dell could put handles on its more expensive boxes and still charge less than Apple does on PowerMacs. :)

It’s extremely hard to see Apple hardware surviving that level of competition. It’s not much easier to see how Apple OS X86 could grab enough marketshare from MS under any likely scenario that would make up for the loss of the hardware business.

The article linked just above talked about using MacOS X86 for servers. Not that Apple has a lot of server business to lose, and if they charged enough for it, swapping the hardware business for software could be plausible, but it’s hard to see how MacOS X86 Server could make any inroads against Windows or Linux, except maybe in predominantly Mac shops.

Enough to Be Credible, Not Enough to be Serious

The eWeek article linked above talked about twenty programmers assigned to the task. That’s a beachhead, not an invasion.

How much can twenty software guys cost? A couple million dollars a year? Let me put it this way, if Marklar can get IBM to reduce the price of its CPU to Apple by a dollar, that pretty much pays for the project. Five bucks, and it’s a great investment, with any deterrent effect on MS being pure gravy.

Even if absolutely no one gets fooled by this, if the bluff gets called, what does it cost Apple at worst? Just a couple million for a year, maybe two.

It’s a pretty good bet: limited losses at worst and potentially very high gains/prevention of serious losses at best.

A bluff. A good bluff. Nothing more.

Tags: