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The Mac Versus a PC: Has the Difference Vanished?

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.