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  • Has the Mac Lost its Soul?

    April 15th, 2006

    The things you’ve long taken for granted in this tiny corner of the universe have been turned upside down over the past few years. It really started when Steve Jobs saved Apple by unveiling the bondi blue iMac in 1998. It seems almost an eternity in the world of personal computers, but it signaled a very significant development for Apple, for after years of decline, the company seemed back on the road to innovation, and boy has it been a wild ride!

    Over the next few years, the Mac moved to a new operating system, and your initial reactions were mixed. Many of you lamented the loss of features from the so-called Classic Mac OS, and, to this day, feel that eye candy has supplanted consistency, purity. True, Apple has embraced industry standards, but what has it lost in the process? Depends on your point of view, but it is a question that’s still being asked.

    When the iPod came out in 2001, it was regarded as a curiosity by most of you, an overpriced consumer electronics toy that might gain a small following, but not much more. However, Apple then did the unthinkable, which was to expand support for Windows users, including the release of iTunes for Windows. Today, with tens of millions of users, it’s very fair to consider the iPod a Windows product that just happens to support Macs. When Apple removed support for FireWire in favor of USB 2.0, didn’t it just add insult to injury? But Apple is going for the numbers here, and in that they have succeeded big time. Well, at least there’s the alleged halo effect, in which Windows users, exposed to Apple’s cool technology, are tempted to buy Macs, and the expanding sales figures demonstrate it might just well be working.

    Consider Apple’s protestations that developing a cheap Mac was not in the cards, that it didn’t want to compete in the entry-level PC box arena. This isn’t to say that Macs, as some suggest, are boutique priced. That used to be true, but when you compare its standard equipment with any brand-name PC, and outfit the latter similarly, prices are very close. Sometimes the Mac is cheaper, sometimes a comparable Dell or HP is cheaper, but the price differences aren’t significant.

    Anyway, Apple decided to go for volume, and just weeks after saying it wouldn’t happen, introduced the original $499 Mac mini in January of 2005. Yes, today’s Intel-based version starts at $599, but Apple added wireless support and a remote control, which are worth a lot more than the $100 price increase.

    At the same time that it introduced the Mac mini, the iPod shuffle made its debut. The product appeared a year after Steve Jobs was claimed that Apple wouldn’t produce Flash-based music players, that their capacity was too small, and people didn’t really use them anyway. Maybe he was right, but when the memory chips got greater capacity, and prices for the parts went down, Apple changed its tune.

    Of course the biggest change, so far at least, is the impending departure of the PowerPC. For years, Apple staged bake-offs to demonstrate that its computers would toast Pentiums, crush them mercilessly. Sure, some of you disputed the tests, claiming Apple crippled the PC boxes used for comparison, or falsified the test parameters in some fashion to favor its own hardware. While it’s fare to say that tests designed to show its equipment to best advantage were employed, my personal experiences demonstrate the tests were done quite fairly. I even had the chance to test review hardware from PC makers in comparison, and I ended up with results that were closely matched to Apple’s.

    So Intel was the enemy, in league with Microsoft as part of the personal computer industry’s “axis of evil.” Naturally, when the stories broke that Apple was going to ditch IBM and Freescale and transition to Intel processors, cries of disbelief were heard. How could it be? But Jobs confirmed the news during last year’s WWDC meeting. Mac OS X had been quietly developed for Intel all along, in addition to its PowerPC version. Did you feel betrayed or was Apple just being smart, hedging its bets in case its existing chip suppliers didn’t deliver the goods? And, sure enough, they couldn’t.

    Now that the Intel transition is far ahead of schedule, with 50% of the line converted, how could you possibly be surprised that there is now an Apple-sanctioned solution to running Windows on a MacIntel? You expected the hackers would be the ones to succeed first, and they did. But Apple’s Boot Camp is far more elegant, so long as you don’t object to dual booting. But that only opened the floodgates. As Parallels Workstation advances in its beta process, the dream of running the Mac OS and Windows side by side with great performance has apparently come true. I should add that I intend to put the new application through its paces in a few days, and you’ll be able to read my review some time next week.

    But has Apple somehow abandoned you by allowing you to install Windows on a Mac? Not at all. In fact, it’s nothing new. Years ago, you could buy a DOS card for some Macs, which, in effect, placed a PC, parasite-like, inside your computer. It was an overpriced and underperforming solution, but it recognized the reality of having to run Windows on your Mac from time to time. Boot Camp recognizes the same reality, only it’s a lot more elegant, and cheaper. The software is free, and all you need is a retail copy of Windows XP. Parallels Workstation, a third party product, will be less than $50 when the final release version is available, but it will support many more x86 operating systems.

    Has the Mac lost its soul because of these developments? Not in my opinion. Apple has merely made it possible for more people to get in on the fun.

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