Segments: Slices from the Macintosh Life
Hit Me Again
Mac OS on Intel. Great. Wonderful. And no sarcasm either.
The Mac has, for me, always been about the user interface. Aside from the GUI, what I love about being a Mac user is the great software I can use. There must be a special kind of mentality to people who use the Mac and people who create products for it. Things on the Mac just seem more elegant in solving problems, whereas stuff on that other ubiquitous platform feels kinda jerry-rigged. Features really aren’t much more than additional menu items and buttons, for the world’s most prevalent desktop operating system, and no matter how much lipstick they paint onto the elephant, or what they append to the end of the word “Windows,” it’s pretty much the same old, same old, year after year.
Maybe it’s just statistics. Maybe the vast majority of people either can’t appreciate or don’t need a more refined computing experience. Maybe good enough is good enough. Which is perhaps why the third most important thing I like about being a Mac user is being part of the Mac community. We’re what the media call “Macintosh fanatics” or “the Cult of Mac.” Whatever. I simply prefer being more productive with my time, spending less on effort and total cost of ownership, and having fun while working. If the rest of the world is satisfied to aggravate daily on their PC, I say live and let live, but you just don’t get the same thrill popping open the Start menu, as when you press the hot key for Exposé or Dashboard.
So that’s why, when Steve hit us with the bombshell of a keynote, I knew we were in for even better days. I know some of us in the community don’t feel the same way (assuming, of course, that the negative commentary is from real Mac users rather than paid shills) with some people even saying they’ll never buy a Mac again. So, what, they’d rather use a Windows PC? It just doesn’t make sense. Desktop Linux is not refined enough yet, either.
Let’s put aside all the emotional angst. This sure as heck ain’t the first time Apple dangled low-hanging breakthrough fruit in front of us, before quietly kicking it under the carpet. Old timers will remember a slew of trademarks, including Game Sprockets, PowerTalk, Publish & Subscribe, OpenDoc, AV features, and, let’s not forget, e-frickin’-World and the Newton. Leaving aside the litter of false starts over the years, the Mac has, generally speaking, remained the best computing choice in the world. And since Steve returned to the captain’s chair, Apple has been just insanely great.
This latest megashift in technology, arguably the most significant yet for the Macintosh, is not occurring in a vacuum. A phase change was “instantiated” in the Apple universe when the iMac launched. Forget “Switch.” The consumer line of iMacs and iBooks captured an important market segment, and paved the way for the incredibly successful iPod campaign. In a market monopolized by the office applications of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, Apple expertly fielded the iLife suite. Hell froze over, and iTunes for Windows was made available for the world to experience. And I haven’t even mentioned Mac OS X, the most advanced, innovative, powerful, and elegant operating system yet created by humanity.
I don’t know who’s behind Apple marketing. Steve gets all the credit, but the brains behind some of the best ideas in the industry don’t always get due credit. But at least Steve gave his permission to go ahead with the strategies, and kudos to him for that. While Mac folk see the wisdom in his decisions, not everyone is so tuned in. I remember reading an article from one of the more mainstream news outlets that said Apple was “quirky.” That’s kinda like living in a totalitarian society and saying democracy is “unpredictable.” These are conservative Wall Street types talking about a West-coast technology powerhouse.
People who don’t understand the passion behind the Mac community, or say they don’t like the Mac OS, most likely have never actually used it (or secretly love it but hate not being able to afford it). Tapping on a few keys in the computer showroom, or spending five minutes watching over the shoulder of a Mac user, is no more experiencing the Macintosh than is sitting in the driver’s seat of a Ferrari in an auto show and saying you’ve driven one. The vast majority of people continue to use Windows probably not because they’ve consciously made a decision to choose Windows, but because they’ve never had the chance to use a Mac. It’s like thinking a Windows CE (or whatever it’s called this week) PDA represents all the PDAs in the world. The “test drive” campaign of the mid-1980s tried to address this issue, but it wasn’t very successful. The only thing that’s going to work is having more people show their friends what a Mac is. It’s probably always been that way. And Mac on Intel is going to help, tremendously.
Forget the arguments about PowerPC architecture versus the Pentium roadmap. Let’s not get stuck in a quagmire of speculative details. The fact is, we don’t really know how the Intel chips are going to be implemented, but what we do know is that basically they are going to be the same chips that run Windows. And this means, what? This means that, very likely, we will be able to run Windows applications at near native speeds.
VirtualPC was extremely innovative in translating CPU instructions on the fly, but, as many of us know, real world performance on VirtualPC pretty much sucks, even on a top-end machine. I think Connectix did more to help Mac sales by removing a major hurdle for new buyers (the fear of completely leaving the Windows apps they grew up with) than actually provide a realistic Windows solution. Yes, VirtualPC is a far, far cry from that yesteryear product SoftWindows, but if I wanted to run Windows apps, I’d do so on a cheap PC.
But with a real Pentium chip on board (and not one of those doppleganger wannabe NuBus cards like we had on the first Power Mac AV systems) we can look forward to better Windows provisioning. However it’s implemented, it will be the best solution to date for running hosted operating systems on Mac OS, and it will be critical to bridging the “fear gap” for old Windows junkies to find enlightenment on the Macintosh, as well as opening up the case-hardened numbskulls of CIOs hitherto fearful of choosing an alien hardware platform for their organization.
I just wonder whether Microsoft will continue to deliver VirtualPC or, for that matter, even continue making such a great Office suite for Macintosh. OS X on Intel has actually obviated the need for VirtualPC’s translation engine, and we may see new products on the market provide Windows support. It will be interesting to see how this plays out because now Redmond will really feel the squeeze, between Linux on the backend, and Mac OS X on the desktop.
With Mac OS X soon to proliferate on x86 architecture, some people speculate whether any generic PC box could become a Macintosh. Here, again, I think only good things will happen. The same reason why the original “Star Trek” project (to port “Classic” Mac OS to x86) was canned will prevail, and ensure Apple’s fat hardware margins will not be cannibalized by generic hardware compatibility. Apple would likely never support an OS that runs generically. So the only Mac OS that will run wild will be a hacked, unsupported version. This hacked OS would do fine to flourish in the hacker community. All the hard-core techies that now swear by Linux (or swear at Windows) will be able to experiment with Mac OS. This will have the effect of introducing the fantastic user experience to all these people who would otherwise have no opportunity to know the Mac, and a certain portion of these folks will end up buying a Mac from Apple, to get full support and all the features with no hassles. With the Mac mini product line being so affordable, that will be an easy decision.
Corporations who decide to go Mac (probably in stages, starting with the marketing department) will have to buy legal Apple hardware. And when Apple is able to enjoy better economies of scale prices will drop, especially when Apple’s channel dealers negotiate large volume purchases to fit out entire companies. Channel guys love pushing high-margin stuff.
Naysayers might opine that we’re forgetting something in this utopia of expanding market share: Windows still has more device driver support than the Mac. But since when should platform vendors bend over backwards for peripheral vendors? Shouldn’t it be the other way around? More likely than not, vendors with compatible device drivers for Intel-based OS X will advertise that feature like crazy and be in a position to capture market niches. The peripheral product guys are always competing in a bloody commoditized battlefield anyway, and if there’s a slim chance they can differentiate then you can bet they will. Microsoft has always boasted about its enormous driver database, but general devices such as printers, keyboards, mouses, and external storage usually have industry standard interfaces, if not outright Mac compatibility, and x86-based Mac OS may not even pose a problem, depending on how deep in the architecture the various components of a driver need to go. More esoteric devices will likely make the jump to x86-based Mac support when the momentum is there.
As for the resistance to Intel that some of us feel (and I’ll avoid the overused Borg mention) let us remember this is not the first time Intel has been inside our Macs. Or are we forgetting the transition from NuBus to PCI, or the gradual end-of-lifing of FireWire in favor of USB 2.0? Heck, Intel even invented D-RAM.
I have a friend who said he’s not going to buy a new Mac this year and will wait for the Intel Macs in 2006. Well, that’s not fundamentally different from how it’s always been; otherwise we wouldn’t be hitting the Mac rumor sites to check when the next iteration of stuff will hit the stores. I’m sure Apple knows the huge market risk to this transition, so we might be in for a whole host of super features in the next batch of G4 Macs, especially the laptops, to justify our continued purchases. (I know I’m looking forward to a 1.67 GHz 12" PowerBook with backlit keyboard.) I have another friend considering a Mac mini. It’s so cheap that he’ll just relegate it to a poor man’s Xserve when he buys his next Mac in 2007. If you’re in the market for a new Mac in 2005, I say go for it, and then buy your next Mac in 2007 or 2008, when whatever kinks they have in the new Intel machines have been ironed out.
This is the best possible time, ever, for Apple to be doing this transition. This extremely difficult and risky chasm must be crossed now, while iPod, iTunes, and Mac sales are hot. The short-term effects of Mac users who feel disenfranchised will be balanced out by new Mac switchers, and the old guard will come around sooner or later, even if it takes them a couple of years. We are on the verge of a great new era of Macintosh. Starting next year you may find increasing numbers of friends asking you for advice on buying their new Mac. Apple is again shaking up the industry, as it always has.
Nobody really bought a Ferrari because of the engine. Both the PowerPC and Pentium are sophisticated processing units, and it looks like the Pentium roadmap is going to give us what the PowerPC can’t. So let’s not hassle over what’s inside. What counts is who’s on top, and that would be one hot feline.
After all, it’s the big cats that eat longhorns for lunch.