• The Apple/Intel Report: Yes, it’s Still a Mac!

    December 31st, 2005

    Whenever you read a report about someone cracking Mac OS X for Intel and making it run on a plain, vanilla PC box, you have to wonder whether it’s something you need to take seriously. Lest we forget, we’re still talking about a beta operating system. You don’t know what sort of software and hardware protections Apple will place on its new Macs to prevent such shenanigans.

    In the end, even if it happens here and there, it doesn’t mean that Mac OS X will be freely available so it can be installed on a $399 Gateway. There are issues of performance and peripheral drivers and the strong possibility that, even though the operating system may work after a fashion, the applications themselves may present obstacles.

    There is also a published report from a Mac rumor site that Apple is handing off development of the logic board for the next Power Mac to Intel. I suppose it’s understandable that this can lead to speculation that the next generation Macs will be no different from standard PCs except for the form factor and operating system, as if that was a significant development. Why Apple might do this, of course, doesn’t matter. It may be, as claimed in that report, to save money and speed product development, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

    In point of fact, today’s Mac contains lots of industry standard components, from hard drives and RAM to support parts that provide USB, Ethernet and various forms of PCI support. Aside from the processor the support circuitry, and the various cooling-related components, there’s probably not a whole lot that’s terribly different about the parts inside your typical Mac. But does that make a difference? Back in the heady days of the Mac OS clones, various companies slapped an Apple-designed logic board into a perfectly ordinary PC case with standard components from the parts bins, but it made no difference. Why? Because when you turned it on, the screen display told you that it was still a Mac.

    Today’s Mac, as we all know, is no longer just the operating system. The computer itself has a distinctive look that stands out from the pack. Few PC makers understand or perhaps care about such things, except perhaps Alienware, which specializes in higher-priced gear for gamers and professional users.

    So when the first so-called MacIntels appear, what do you expect they’ll become? Will they be no different from hundreds of other PC boxes? That’s absurd, of course, although I’ve seen that suggestion raised from time to time. The theory goes that, since the inner workings will be essentially the same as a Dell or an HP, Apple will lose its competitive advantage somehow. The possibility that they will be able to run Windows too may enhance that belief. The Mac difference will eventually vanish altogether, so they say.

    At the same time, if you took any of today’s Macs and swapped out the logic board with one designed by Intel, and it booted Mac OS X for Intel, would it be a Mac or just another PC? What’s the difference if the parts are the same? Of course, that difference remains, and it’s the operating system, and the fact that Apple enhances the system by giving it attractive duds is the icing on the cake. Suggestions that Windows and the Mac OS are really quite similar in most respects, which is implied, for example, in the rather lame reviews from Consumer Reports magazine, are clearly as silly as they’ve always been.

    Now it’s very possible that Apple will opt to put an Intel Inside sticker on the box or even on the computer itself, although you’ll no doubt be able to remove the latter with very little effort. No reason for Apple to refuse millions of dollars of marketing cash from its new processor partner. But to most of you, it should make no difference whatever to your perception about the finished product. A Mac didn’t become less of a Mac when it went from the original Motorola 680×0 processor family to PowerPC, even though software had to be reworked extensively to be fully compatible.

    In the coming months, you will hear that Apple has sacrificed its distinctiveness to move over to Intel. However, the end result will be a sleeker, faster computer. If IBM had managed to produce the G5 chips Apple hoped for when it made its original deal, you’d still have a sleeker, faster computer. And that is both the beginning and end of the story.

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