There’s been an awful lot of column inches devoted to Steve Jobs’ announcement that he is going to port the Apple MacOS to Intel. Here are some more.
The big debate is around whether Jobs will license MacOS to other manufacturers, so they can build Intel machines around MacOS. Some pundits have been saying that if he did, Apple could quickly grow to rival Microsoft’s Windows dominance. A little hasty, perhaps.
Jobs has so far said that he will not allow others to license MacOS on Intel, or any other hardware for that matter. That’s because Apple’s current business model is reliant on its hardware sales more that its software sales. It could of course change its business model, and if sales of MacOS on other people’s hardware became great enough it could more than make up for the loss of Apple hardware sales. But so far that looks like a bridge too far for Jobs, who is no doubt mindful of what a change like that might do to the company’s share price in the short and medium term.
Culturally, too, the company sees itself very much as a solutions company. It likes the idea of someone buying its hardware and software together, wrapped up in a fantastically slinky, well-engineered skin. That philosophy is in its blood now more than ever.
In which case, what difference does MacOS on Intel really mean? Instead of buying a sexy Apple Mac running a PowerPC chip, you will get a sexy Mac running Intel.
When Jobs announced the switch to Intel he demonstrated Microsoft’s Office and Adobe’s PhotoShop – written for the PowerPC – running on an Intel-based Mac thanks to Apple’s Rosetta dynamic binary translator. For a longer-term solution to the third-party application issue, Jobs also introduced version 2.1 of Xcode, Apple’s development environment, which will enable application developers to create universal binaries that will run on both PowerPC- and Intel-based Macs.
So aside from applications support, the only real difference is that it could enable Apple to get somewhat faster, less power-hungry computers out of the door, which will be a boon for its mobile machines and also the Mac mini (and future iterations thereof), which it seems determined to make as small as possible.
Make the Mac mini much smaller and you will be able to take your computer from home to work in your shirt pocket, just like an iPod (or perhaps, instead of an iPod, if you add a battery). Who knows where Apple could ultimately take the Mac mini?
So what does this mean when punters make the comparison between Apple and the PC brigade? The Wintel brigade already have Intel in their desktops, severs and laptops, so little change there. You can’t get Intel machines with MacOS, of course, nor does it look likely you will be able to when Apple makes the switch.
What the Wintel brigade have so far not managed to do is come up with anything that competes directly with the Mac mini. That’s partly because Apple is able to iron out any hardware and software incompatibilities in the likes of its iLife suite of applications, because they are all from Apple. But it’s also a great design, offering most of the power of a desktop computer in a much smaller form factor.
The Mac mini won’t suit everyone. It’s not for tinkerers and is not very extensible. Even extra memory must be fitted by an Apple authorized service provider unless you want to invalidate the warranty. It’s only got a laptop disk spinning at 4,200 RPM, so intensive disk read/write applications like real-time music and video editing can struggle (most desktops and even some laptop disks spin at 7,200 RPM). It’s only 1.42 GHz so far in the top model, and it’s only got an 80GB hard drive. But for a low cost, sleek, and very quiet everyday computer, it’s fantastic. It’s MacOS and iLife that really bring it into its own.
It’s rumoured that Apple has commissioned its manufacturer to increase production to 100,000 Mac minis per month, so the mini is selling like hot cakes. Then again, Dell sold around 2.6 million PCs per month in 2004, and the total market for PCs was something like 15 million per month according to analysts. It’s not clear yet how many Mac Minis are being bought instead of a PC purchase, and how many are being purchased as a complementary piece of kit for the living room or bedroom, where their compact form factor and funky multimedia capabilities make them a good fit.
But all in all, unless Jobs licenses MacOS to other Intel manufacturers, I see Apple’s switch to Intel as enabling Apple to make only evolutionary improvements, predominantly to its laptops and Mac mini. The thing is, each new generation of Macs has been pretty revolutionary even before this switch.