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by Bryan Chaffin

No OS X On Intel Part II: The Hardware Reality
November 22nd, 2000

[Make sure you read part I of this series, No Intel On OS X Part I: Economics 101, by Glen Fisher.]

I have always enjoyed a good fight when it is an issue that I believe in. I threw myself into the Clone Wars, for instance, because I thought the cloners made better, and much more exciting, Macs than did Apple. I also thought they were much quicker to market with their products. Couple that to the David/Goliath themes that were so easy to find, and I was hooked and ready to enter the fray with both arms swinging. Note too the futility of that fight, but that is a subject for another column at another time.

Another "cause" that I was a believer in at one time is the idea of running the Mac on Intel hardware. I think this would have been a good idea for Apple, especially in the early 90's when they basically had it (the Star Trek project) done according to the excellent book "Apple Confidential" by Owen Linzmayer. That effort was scrapped by Apple after the remarkable team of people working on it had basically completed the project. It still blows my mind what they were able to do with the time and resources they had. Read the book if you are not familiar with the story as it is one that highlights the best and worst that Apple had to offer at that time. I think that Apple would have been in a good position to fight off the newly emerging Windows platform at that time had they come to market with the technology. They may or may not have had to make a transition to being a software-only company (that would be a great project for a computer modeling thesis or two to spend a few years working on), but we will most likely never know.

Today there is a new call for Apple to head down a similar path and move OS X over to Intel hardware. The argument goes that as a derivative of Unix, it shouldn't be that big a deal and besides they could sell a gillion copies of OS X to the hordes of dissatisfied Windows users. I shan't debate the technical issues involved with such a port, but I do want to delve into an aspect of this that I think has largely been overlooked.

Right off the top, let me make it clear that I am positive this will never happen. There is a tiny doubt that cast a shadow of doubt on my feelings of righteousness on this, but I will address that in a bit.

If I may, let me play Devil's Advocate a moment. It would be foolish beyond belief for Apple not to have worked out alternate processor plans in the face of Motorola's ongoing problems with PowerPC production. Apple is suffering from major processor envy and frankly looks kind of pathetic to much of the industry when it comes to the speed of their product line. I know it. You know it. Steve Jobs knows it, and do not let anything to the contrary (including his excellent showmanship when demonstrating Photoshop speed tests) fool you into thinking anything else. He knows it. I also guarantee the rest of the incredible brain trust residing at 1 Infinite Loop knows it too. So rest assured that Apple has plans worked out to make a Switch to another line of processors should the need arise.

I actually personally believe that they already have some version of OS X already working on Intel, and I mean more than the Open Source Darwin shell that was ported to Intel earlier this year. Like I said, it would be foolish of them not too. Say what you want about Steve Jobs and Co. but foolish they are not.

Here's the reality check on this though: people who think that OS X on Intel means that they can load it up on their 1.3 GHz Pentium 4 machine they built themselves are sadly mistaken. If Apple were to ever move to an Intel, Transmeta, AMD, or even a Cyrix processor, you can bet dollars to donuts that it will only work on Apple branded hardware. It will be ROM locked or use some other technology to make this so.

Here's why.

I have mentioned this in a couple of Spins in the past, so if I repeat myself, please forgive me. Steve Jobs is a Hardware Nut. He loves hardware. Better yet, he loves hardware that looks and acts better than everyone else's hardware. He loves creating elegant and intuitive hardware. He loves to create products that help people be creative without them thinking about the products. He has said it a million times (give or take) and he has done so consistently throughout his career.

While I am busily guaranteeing things that I have no business guaranteeing, I will guarantee you that Mr. Jobs does not consider Johnny's 1.3 GHz Wintel box he hand built to be elegant or even excellent. He certainly is not comfortable with leaving the customer experience in the hands of Compaq, Del, or ChipSmart. That's the most important issue here too. PowerGeeks may not think of it in these terms, but if someone buys a copy of OS X and slaps it on their Del Inspiron 6000 Deluxe, their end-user experience lies just as much in the hands of Del as it does Apple. From what I understand about Steve's Muse, that just doesn't cut it.

Steve Jobs wants to be in control of the entire customer experience from opening the box to using their computer on a daily basis. He has alluded to this repeatedly and products like the iMac and G4 Cube are merely the latest iteration of this vision.

Now that we have these deeper, more philosophical issues resolved, we can throw into the argument that without hardware sales, Apple is essentially a US$300 million per year business. Ouch. Gotta have those hardware sales just to make ends meet. That's what kind of company Apple is.

Now the backdoor out of this is that Apple could throw in the towel on the AIM consortium. The Register UK said the other day that Apple would shortly (in January) be unveiling 600 MHz PowerMac G4s, but this is still a pathetic leap. Apple needs to be shipping machines at least 750 MHz now to start regaining credibility in the all important public opinion arena. I know Motorola will eventually come through, and they will hopefully eventually catch up to Intel/AMD. After all, it wasn't too long ago when the PowerPC was the first processor to ship at over 200 MHz. But if they don't, Apple could decide to make the Big Switch. This is the only way OS X will ever come to Intel, and it will only work on Apple branded boxes.

I guarantee it. :-)

Your comments are welcomed.

began using Apple computers in 1983 in a high school BASIC programming class. He started using Macs in 1990 when the Kinko's guy taught him how to use Aldus PageMaker, finally buying a Power Computing Power 100 in 1995. Today, Bryan is the Editor of The Mac Observer, and has contributed to the print versions of MacAddict and MacFormat (UK).

You can send your comments directly to him, or you can also post your comments below.

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