Random Rants, by Thomas Andrew Olson

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Apple's Not in the Wilderness Anymore

This is something I always wanted: Being able to run Mac OS X on a Pentium.

Apparently, my moment arrived - and as usual, while I was out. Good thing I live for irony.

In his usual hyperbolic form, Steve Jobs, during his keynote at the WWDC Monday, formally announced that by 2007 all Apple products would ship with Pentium processors. This was a deal five years in the making. I had known for a long time that a Darwin build was running on a Pentium 4 somewhere in a basement at 1 Infinite Loop, but I felt it unlikely that they would port the whole farm over, given the 64-bit-code investment in the G5.

But this is an age of unlikely things, and while moving to Pentium a decade ago would have made little sense, it makes a lot of sense now, for a lot of reasons. Personally, I'm thrilled at the possibilities and opportunities.

Yes, the Mac purist techies will scream in rage at Jobs "sellout". But most users, frankly, could care less about the advantages of this processor over that one in the guts of their machines - they just want the fastest thing they can afford that will run the apps they want. It's all about momentum, supply chains, and consumer choice.

Apple has some great momentum right now, in the wake of iPods, iTunes, and MacMini's. It's share price has soared past its competitors, which (including Microsoft) have been fairly stagnant. Apple has proven itself time and again to be the most innovating force in the digital world. So there must be some compelling reasons for the company to shift hardware gears now. And there are many. Let me gloss over the ones I feel are most important:

The supply chain has always been a challenge for Apple - it seemed every time they switched to a newer PPC chip, new machines bought by eagerly anticipating users were almost instantly on back order. The G5 is screaming fast - I have a dual 2.0 Ghz at the office - but there is no new G5 laptop in the pipeline, due to excessive heat issues. Switching to Pentium gives Apple instant access to new laptop designs with cranked up horsepower, new tablet designs, and no shortages of anything again, ever. So Apple's machines will be priced even lower, and offer more raw power for the buck.

Even more importantly, Apple's overall "market share" will finally be dissociated from hardware sales. The "cloning" experiment a decade ago was too little too late, as it was tied to the "minority" processor, and Apple itself had to compete with its own clonemakers for PPC chips, so market share stagnated. Today, we have a company with a rock-solid, secure, 'nix-based OS, that will run on multiple processors, including the one which runs over 80% of the world's computers. It will compete for the first time on a truly level hardware field against the dominant OS, Windows. Microsoft has had that field to itself for a long time. (While Linux has made some inroads, it fails to excite users, is built mainly for high-end tinkerers, and has a paucity of application offerings.) Additionally, Microsoft is vulnerable right now, due to all the hidden costs (in the billions) to both consumers and corporate America of virus attacks, spyware, and other malicious problems. OS X-on-a-Pentium offers people a way out - change your OS without changing your hardware. Expect this to happen on the corporate server farm first, then watch it spread out to corporate desktops, and from there to consumer desktops.

Of course, for this to fly, it would have to be very easy for Mac app developers to recompile their code for Pentium chips, and that, apparently, is the case in the form of a new compiler/translator called Rosetta. All the more reason that this move be announced at the WorldWide Developers Conference, as opposed to MacWorld Expo - without the developers onboard, you're nowhere. And to a great extent, if the early returns mean anything, they are, indeed, onboard. (But of course when you have an announced two year lead time, it's easier to gain acceptance.)

Personally, I can crank up my consulting practice quite a bit by offering "migration services" from Windows to OS X on-a-Pentium, recompiling their key apps on the fly. If there are some "Winblows only" apps that they must have no matter what, the legacy system can be dual-boot. There will be no need for "virtual OS" emulators any longer. (Looks as though Connectix sold out to MSFT just in time!)

It's also good for the consumer in general. Microsoft has had its OEMs, like Dell and HP, over a barrel forever in terms of licensing agreements. Now the 'softies have to play nice, or Michael Dell punches up Bill Gates on his speed-dial and tells him the next two million Dimensions are shipping with Tiger pre-installed. Hell, he should do it anyway - Tiger is half the price of XP Pro. Low-end PC prices will continue to drop, and support calls along with them. Virus and spyware protection will be far less of a worry at all levels, increasing overall productivity.

The only ones to lose by this are those who have carved lucrative careers for themselves in Windows land, living parasitically off those who have become utterly dependent on them for solving the ubiquitous Windows problems - problems that invariably crop up on them again a day, week, or month later. Huge IT departments with huge power bases and budgets have been made in corporate America on the sole basis of Window's complexity and insecurity. Wait until the boardrooms get word that their lives can be simplified and budgets shrunk, long term, by simply moving their OS - no hardware change required. I foresee a lot of MSCEs in OS X classes before too long, if they want to keep their jobs. But then, as OS X needs less hands-on support than Windows, and therefore less staff, expect a lot of resistance from the low/middle-end techies at first.

For the first time in over a decade, this industry is going to get shaken up. New alliances will be forged, new opportunities discovered. And in the end, the consumer wins, big time. Apple will continue to make Mac boxes, but if they want, they can concentrate on the high-end Porsche and Mercedes versions, with the biggest margins, while still extending their reach to those who can only afford (and/or already have) Kias.

Even so, there would still be a market for a MacMini at a lower price - and they wouldn't be backordered any longer.

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