The Mac Versus a PC: Has the Difference Vanished?

June 6th, 2006

In writing about the problems Microsoft is facing in finishing up Windows Vista, some of you have mistaken this for a Mac zealots versus PC zealots issue. But that’s not true. Vista’s troubled development process is well known, and when people recognized as Windows experts find serious issues with stability, performance and the user interface, it’s reasonable to predict that there’s trouble ahead.

But I want this commentary to focus on more than just operating systems. I’ll begin by taking you back to June of 2005, when Steve Jobs, in front of a huge WWDC keynote audience, said Apple was moving to Intel processors. This development had been widely anticipated in the mainstream press, so it didn’t come as much of a surprise. It was also true that Apple had been unable to deliver the promised 3GHz G5, or get ahold of a tamed version for a note-book. So it seemed, as far as I’m concerned, a natural consequence.

The development was actually hinted at a lot earlier, when Jobs, in a widely-quoted comment, talked about being pleased with IBM’s processor roadmap, but admitting he liked “options.” At the time, I don’t recall paying a lot of attention to the statement, but I had an inkling. On the other hand, I don’t want to sound like the fortune teller who tells you that he or she predicted all sorts of events in advance, but you only learn of it after those events occurred.

Now we do know that Jobs had prepared for the possibility of a fast processor switch by having a secret, though occasionally rumored, project to develop a version of Mac OS X for Intel or x86 chips.

At the same time, Apple was busy touting the differences and advantages of the PowerPC. Time after time, they staged bake-offs where a G4 or a G5 trounced a Pentium. Some suggested it was all a fake, but I don’t believe that for a moment, although I’m sure Apple made sure it chose tests where it would emerge victorious. But that’s just marketing.

However, the real issue is just how much today’s Mac differs from the PC, except for the operating system, of course. In fact, when you use Boot Camp, or a virtualization solution, such as Parallels Desktop, does the Mac become nothing more than a pretty Windows computer?

Consider the Mac of, say, 10 years ago, just before Steve Jobs returned to the company. Yes, Apple had changed its peripheral slots from NuBus to PCI, so one significant hardware difference had vanished. But Steve Jobs really sped up the movement to commodity parts and industry standards when he embraced USB for the iMac. Gone were the serial and LocalTalk ports that graced previous Macs, in favor of a standard that had already been available on more and more PC boxes.

Although SCSI is still favored by some high-end users, Apple went to ATA-type storage devices. More recently, their custom ADC monitor connection scheme, which gave you a single plug for digital video, AC power and USB, was phased out in favor of industry-standard cables. Of course that allowed you to hook up a Cinema Display to a standard DVI port without a special adapter, so it could work conveniently on a PowerBook (and now a MacBook Pro) and a PC. Good marketing, but a somewhat messier wiring method.

In any case, take a look at today’s MacIntel. Forget about the elegant case, and the internal parts placement, and pay attention to the actual parts. Most of the guts of these computers are virtually identical to a comparably-equipped PC. The processors, the chipsets and even the memory is the same. Storage devices are the same, and such peripheral ports as Ethernet, FireWire and USB are sourced from standard industry sources.

Mac OS X itself, based on BSD Unix, supports a whole set of industry standards. What has Apple wrought?

Well, conspiracy theorists, and a few so-called tech writers who just adore high hit counts and comment sections with lots of content, might suggest that Apple will, in the end, ditch its operating system. Let Microsoft concern itself over operating systems, and just make a PC that looks nice and sells at a slight premium for folks who cherish external looks above all else.

Although I do talk about conspiracies and such on one of my radio shows, I don’t agree with any of this. Using industry-standard components means that Apple can take advantage of lower prices, and have extra sources of supply. But the main advantage remains, that they design the whole widget, even though the hardware is assembled by the same contract builders as a generic PC. Surrendering its operating system would, in the end, kill what really makes the Mac different. Without that advantage, and without an operating system regarded as superior even by a surprising number of Windows experts, what would happen to Apple?

Oh yes, I suppose there’s the iPod. But then Apple becomes a one-product company all over again, and is the iPod’s luster going to last beyond the Mac, if the latter disappeared? Of course, some say the Mac is doomed anyway, but they’ve been saying that for 22 years now. Maybe if they say it often enough, they might eventually be right. But definitely not now, and not in the foreseeable future, as far as I’m concerned.

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13 Responses to “The Mac Versus a PC: Has the Difference Vanished?”

  1. setomi says:

    Don’t forget, in a relatively quick fasion, they also dumped PCI-X in favor of PCI Express.

    I found the newer Macs to be a really different and pleasing experience. So for me, the difference still exists. It’s an experience that you can’t get from a PC (ironic because XP meant experience). But this difference seems to be narrowing with Vista (aside from the typical beta issues).

    Apple said “Think Different”. And that means change is inevitable. Although the guts of the computer are the “same” as a PC, the presentation (design, aesthetics, packaging, bundled, software, the Apple Store, etc) remains unique in the business and high up in the coolness factor.

    No way are they going to dump the OS. But if you ask “what if Apple ditched OSX?”, then this is what would happen:

    * Hell would freeze over (again). Riot in Cuppertino.

    * Apple Hardware will still remain the best in the business. They make more money selling hardware anyway. So financially they would survive well.

    * You’d see Final Cut Pro and iLife (for Windows).

    * Windows development would come to a halt. Without competition, there would be less of a need to improve. So, not even the PC zealots would be happy about it.

    * No more surprises from Steve Jobs.
    * No more Mac conferences.
    * No more rumor sites
    * No more PC/Mac war?
    * No more Apple “switcher” commercials.
    * No more Virtual PC.
    * Apple bootcamp stops development at version 1.1
    * Adobe (and others) would eventually stop making Mac versions of software.
    * OSX users would surive for a long time. But eventually switch to Windows (or some other OS) because of a lack of software.
    * Overall, no more fun.

    Given this, I’m confident the Mac OS is here to stay.

  2. JohnK says:

    People who describe Macs as just a nicer looking PC really don’t understand the difference between a Mac and a PC. A nicer looking machine is only cosmetically different. Once you start to use the tool the same old annoyances come to the surface. The Mac is different largely because of the OS but also because of the integration with the hardware. It’s like picking up a really nicely made tool that just feels right in your hand.

  3. gopher says:

    The Mac experience certainly is different. Primarily because the operating system is different. I still wonder if Apple will ever get rid of the spinning beachball in favor of “this application is taking too much time to perform its calculation” with Quit and Resume buttons. Windows 2000 has had similar dialogs for those applications you couldn’t force quit otherwise. On the whole though it has been very stable. I would though like to see standards set that allow people to build on them. Too frequently I have to upgrade third party applications to match the operating system upgrade, or else the software unexpectedly quits upon launch. To date, I have yet to find a comparable application to Willmaker that works in 10.4.6, but it does work in 10.3.9. To date, Riven, Simcity 3000, and John Madden 2000 don’t run in Classic, so I have to keep around my old iMac G4 for Mac OS 9 booting. Still for everything else, it works like a champ.

  4. TomB says:

    “I still wonder if Apple will ever get rid of the spinning beachball in favor of “this application is taking too much time to perform its calculation” with Quit and Resume buttons.”

    If the spinning beachball on a Mac bothers you, do yourself a favor and stay away from Win XP. I use that at work and I probably lose 10 minutes a day waiting for Windows to “think” its way through an appliaction crash– usually Internet Explorer.

    I think OS X is in no danger. I so hate XP that I’d probably quit computers and live like the Unabomber in a cabin in Montana if I had to use Windows at home as well as at work.

  5. TomB says:

    “I think OS X is in no danger. I so hate XP that I’d probably quit computers and live like the Unabomber in a cabin in Montana if I had to use Windows at home as well as at work.”

    Just to clarify– I mean “avoiding computers” like the Unabomber– not the violence part. I think he went back to the typewriter. Best to be clear about things like this these days 🙂

  6. Andrew says:

    I actually have no real complaints about Windows 2000 and look back on it fondly as the first truly stable OS that I used. Windows XP is just as good. The problem with Windows today isn’t that it sucks, its that there are too many attacks against it. Left to its own devices, NT 5 based systems (Win2K, XP, Server 2003) are robust and feature-rich operating systems that have both advantages AND disadvantages compared to Mac OS X.

    Of course, OS X is also a fully modern and stable OS that is a delight to use. It has advantages and disadvantages not only comapred to Windows, but other *Nix systems as well. It is because of the flood of Windows Malware and the lack of Linux or Unix version of MS Word that I use Macs exclusively right now.

    Yes, I like my Apple hardware, especially the 12″ PowerBook which I was very sad was not updated to Intel like the larger MacBook Pros or the consumer MacBook were. Truth is, however, I like IBM ThinkPads just as much, more in some ways, less in others. A malware-free 12″ ThinkPad (X32 is a personal favorite) with MS Word would probably displace my 12″ PowerBook as my travel machine. I had one of those and loved its versatility, switching from 3.2lb 5 hour city portable (no optical drive) to 5lb full-featured 5 hour portable (with media sllice) or 4.5lb 10 hour (no optical drive, aux plate battery) flight-monster. No PowerBook since the Wallstreet had that versatility, and definitely not in the 3-5lb weight class.

    I like Mac OS X and the way things work, but the way that copying a newer folder version deletes the older one rather than offering to replace older files within as Windows does is something I really have to think about, and that has caused me to lose data in the past. I like the way Windows displays thumbnail views of pictures without opening iPhoto or similar. I even like the way XP lets me hide seldome used taskbar icons but still access them instantly. On the 15″ PowerBook the menubar is wide enough to leave everything I want on display, but on my 12″ things are much more crowded and I find myself removing functionality from my menubar that I prefer to have.

    If I had to use Windows as my OS today I wouldn’t quit computers, but I would severely restrict my internet time and invest in a very good hardware firewall. The Mac frees me to just not worry, which is the way I was on Windows back in 1999 when I enjoyed using Windows 2000 so much. OS choice for me is a matter of which tool works best for the job. In the year 2000 the best tool for me was a 3lb PC laptop (Toshiba Portege) running Windows 2000. Apple had nothing to compare with that except bulky and heavy PowerBook G3s and clamshell iBooks running OS 9. Today the balance favors a 4.6lb 12″ PowerBook running OS X. Will Windows Vista change that? It depends entirely on how secure it is, how intrusive the security has to be.

    My ideal is a malware-free OS on a 1.5lb laptop with an ergonomic keyboard, eraserhead mouse (sorry, I hate touchpads), 12″ conventional or 13″ widescreen and 8 or more hours battery life. Obviously current technology does not allow all of those things, so everything that is available is a compromise of one sort or another. Mac OS X and the small PowerBook to me is just the least limiting compromise as of early June 2006. Things change.

  7. DustinK says:

    Unfortunately I have to use windows for work. Gives me all kinds of trouble. The only way I have found getting around trouble with XP is to not have any software that integrates with the OS. Once I install ALL the software I need I have trouble. I leave my new PCs clean for a few weeks so that I can actually enjoy the computer.

    What I want to know is when the Intel OS will be for sell. I cant wait to ditch XP.

  8. Aaron says:

    Microsofts Vista Problems Reminds me of another time when Apple had problems with Copland Development..and what happened Apple bought out NEXT…….will MS do the Same?? my thought’s are MS may give up up on the the OS and just Focus on there real money makers: Office, X Box, etc…..and leave the Operating Systems to other providers…… Just a perdiction?

  9. frgough says:

    Now that’s an interesting speculation. Windows makes MS a lot of money, just because it gets bundled with new PCs, but if the money coming in can’t cover development and support costs, I could see Microsoft chucking Windows and developing Office for Mac OS X and Linux. 90% of their profits come from Office and Windows anyway. If that shifts to 90% from office and 10% from Windows, it might happen.

  10. KA says:

    I’ve run both Win and Mac OS X boxes, and I’ve got to tell you that since I walked away from both and moved to Linux, I couldn’t be happier. Not speaking as a zealot, but just as a recommendation, I’m using the Fedora Core 5 distro of Linux, and my experience with it has been trouble-free. It also runs an awful lot faster than any version of Windows I’ve used, probably because the code is so much tighter. If Microsoft were to stop development on their operating systems as Aaron and frgough consider, I could see a huge rise in the usage of Linux variants. It’s been a real dream to use, too.

  11. jasonditz says:

    As someone who went Windows > Linux > OSX (and actually you could stick a OS/2 on the beginning of that if you want), I would have to say that if OSX ceased to exist, I’d definitely go back to linux, but I wouldn’t be nearly so happy. Linux is all well and good, but the ease of use just isn’t there, in my experience. I’m fine with compiling software and dealing with conflicts if I have to, but all things being equal, I’d much rather download a disk image that contains a working executable that I can just drag to wherever I want it.

  12. charkie parker says:

    Unfortunately the bottom line is, if Apple doesn’t find a way to appeal to a larger segment of the market, they will go bye bye.
    This will be because the shareholders sell out eventually. Apple merges with Microsoft. Capitalism is great, right?

  13. Unfortunately the bottom line is, if Apple doesn’t find a way to appeal to a larger segment of the market, they will go bye bye.
    This will be because the shareholders sell out eventually. Apple merges with Microsoft. Capitalism is great, right?

    Actually this is patently absurd. Apple has confronted this sort of argument for two decades, and it’s not necessarily true. Apple can exist just fine as a niche player in the PC market. It has record profits/sales, even if you subtract the iPod from the picture. Yes, capitalism is great, but so is fantasy, and that’s where I put your conclusions.


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