The Tiger Report: Do You Really Want to Run Mac OS X on a Plain PC Box?

October 4th, 2006

Over the years, some analysts have suggested that Apple made a grave mistake in not setting up a real cloning program early on, so other computers could run the Mac OS. If only the company had listened to Bill Gates and others, today Apple might really own the computer market, not just in mindshare, but marketshare as well.

It’s an intriguing thought, but one that is fraught with danger.

When Steve Jobs first announced that Apple would switch to Intel processors, and you and I were reminded that Mac OS was still destined to run only on Macs, some folks tried to change things. They managed to induce the Intel versions of Mac OS X to run on their regular PCs. But that was not a legally sanctioned remedy, and compatibility with peripherals and even many applications was not a sure thing.

Let’s forget the unofficial methods, and look at why Apple doesn’t want to open its operating system and sell it as a retail product that would run on any old PC that, perhaps, meets some basic hardware specs. You see, despite the hopes and dreams that the Mac OS would conquer the operating system world overnight, it would more than likely destroy Apple as a company.

No, this is no extremist posture, and I’m not an Apple apologist. I’m just trying to face reality. And the reality here is that widespread compatibility with third-party computers conflicts with the concept of a lean, mean operating system development machine.

Oh sure, Apple could get it to work reasonably well. They’d also have to expand their compatibility testing big time to account for untold numbers of PC configurations. Even if the list were restricted somewhat, that wouldn’t stop people from attempting and perhaps succeeding at unsupported installations, and you’d end up with chaos. Even Microsoft runs into trouble here from time to time, and it explains why a Mac “just works” most of the time and tends to suffer from fewer system hassles.

The biggest issue, however, is that such a maneuver would simply gut Mac sales, which is still where Apple earns great profits. Now I do not accept the alleged conventional wisdom that Macs are more expensive than PCs. The condition is, of course, that the Mac and the PC are equipped with essentially the same set of options. When you follow those requirements, the Mac can actually be cheaper. But let’s not waste time on that argument.

PC makers, however, sell millions and millions of stripped-down models. Apple won’t go there, simply because there’s little profit in it. Even the number one PC maker, Dell, seems to be retreating from promoting its cheapest products, and is emphasizing its higher-cost business  services. Falling sales and profits have forced them to tout a Dell 2.0 program to revise the company’s focus and prospects.

But you can see that Apple’s hardware sales would likely be wrecked by predatory companies who will tout how you can run Mac OS X on a cheaper product. It doesn’t matter if it’s not an equivalent. It will simply take sales away from a real Mac.

Lest we forget, Apple tried an official cloning scheme in the last decade. Forgetting some ill-thought, and perhaps desperate, elements of the contract with third parties, the scheme nearly destroyed the company. No wonder that Steve Jobs killed the program. No it wasn’t done in a fit of rage, but to save Apple Computer.

Today, Apple has shown with the iPod and with the Mac that it succeeds best as an integrated company, one that provides the operating system, a lot of application software, and the hardware.

Sure, things are far from perfect. But it’s not necessarily true that Macs are less reliable these days. Yes, there have been problems, but even if the percentage of defective units is unchanged from what it was years ago, higher sales mean more computers will be impacted. Even a small number of complaints will, if published in the right troubleshooting-oriented sites, spread around the world in a matter of minutes.

Now maybe the day will arrive when Apple will decide to take the huge risk of sacrificing its hardware to really battle Microsoft in the operating system arena. But Microsoft will have to be truly suffering for that to have any real chance of success. The Apple you know and love will otherwise not survive an all-out war.

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24 Responses to “The Tiger Report: Do You Really Want to Run Mac OS X on a Plain PC Box?”

  1. Malcolm says:

    Andrew, IMHO you are right, and this is just one of the many reasons why Apple should sell shrink-wrapped OS X boxes to a limited spectrum of non-Apple PCs.

  2. david says:

    Part of that supply and demand equilibrium relates to costs, specifically switching costs. If a user can experience OSX for sub $200 that is compelling. People want to try something different, but they might not be ready to buy a MacBook or even a mini. They could however forgive a software purchase to see what the other-side is doing. And they might in a moment of frustration with viruses and such, move to mac on a secondary machine, start using iLife, These are the kind of experiences that create demand over time.

    I really think the vast majority of people who buy macs today want the total experience, most people don’t want to ever install an OS of any kind. My friend just replaced his Dell with a newer Dell rather than rebuild the OS. This to me is the mainstream computer user.

    I also know someone who bought a PC and now regrets not getting a mac. buying a box from apple feels better than calling that PC a total loss or putting it on eBay. For these sort of people OSX could be an easy conversion.
    In most cases, however, I think the shrinkwrap OSX is for hobbiests, enterprises and people, mostly illegally, in developing markets who can’t afford macs anyway.

  3. UberFu says:

    I didn’t read all of the follow up comments – but I would suspect that like Apple’s model with iTunes/iPod where they don’t profit too much from sales at the iTunes store – but it is used as a supplement for selling iPods_ So they probably work it very similar as they see profit from the sales of their Computers and use their operating system to supplement it_

  4. HaloFrag says:

    I would switch over in a heartbeat. I would switch my entire corporation over to Mac OS if I could. I can’t afford to buy all new machines, but I could afford to spend 100-200 on each PC. I am sick and tired of the craptection system of M$. I am sick of the BSOD’s and the exorbitant upgrade fees for the next OS from M$ that is bloated beyond belief. Vista is a nightmare. Craptection makes a small hardware upgrade or OS re-installation due to a crashtacular OS a nightmare. I desperately want to get off the Microsoft trail of tears. I would at least like the option of a realistic choice. Not to spank Microsoft–I don’t intrinsically have anything against microsoft’s XP os, it does some things very well–except of late they are acting too big for their britches and treating their customers like we exist to fulfill their needs instead of the other way around—WE ARE THE CUSTOMERS DAMMIT.

    I don’t like to be automatically considered a thief when every single dell PC we own came with an OS key. Yes, I would switch. I would switch to Linux but there is no “single” distribution that I can count on. Somebody needs to OWN the OS. Someone that is the authority. Linux is too frangible–too wild west–to nihilist. But Mac OS has an “authority”–Apple. There would be one entity I could turn to for advice, support, training, etc.

    I like the Mac machines, but they are not the hardware I would want to use. We manufacture automation/robots and machines that at an HMI level need to run an OS that is easy for our customers to use. We pick XP embedded because the customers are familiar with the look and feel and it is relatively easy to install on various and sundry industrial type boxes (and they work very well when we disable the normal “desktop” and prevent the users from changing anything–but God help you if you need to reinstall the OS, the Administrative hoops you have to jump through–the ethernet connection to reactivate—the phone holds wating to get a new key when that doesn’t work right). I can’t get that from Apple. There hardware is like works of art–not something that would sit well in an industrial environment.

    Oh yes, I would switch. I would train my customers to use the Mac OS. They could find 3rd party books and training as well. I think they would accept it. They already accept some of my XP boxes running my own shell and a touchscreen–in those HMI situations—they wouldn’t even know.

    I have considered using Linux in that situation, but which distribution–unbuntu–roll my own—etc. Maybe Jobs will have a stroke and somebody at apple could then fulfill my wishes.

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