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The iMac Report: Apple Left the Proprietary World a Decade Ago

Lots of pundits are content with putting the words “Apple Inc.” and “proprietary” in the same sentence. A lot of that is, of course, due to the tight vertical integration of all of their products, from the iPod to Macs and Mac OS X.

However, there is an awful lot about the Mac these days that isn’t exclusive to Apple, which is why people can now, without any special training or engineering skills, assemble their own Macs. But this story really began in 1998, when the iMac was first announced.

In those days, you see, I was a member of Apple’s Customer Quality Feedback (or CQF) program, before journalists were barred. In addition to prerelease operating system software, one day they sent me an original Bondi blue iMac. The optical drive’s cover was missing, but it was otherwise fully intact and functional. I ran it through the usual spate of tests, and even let my son, then 12, have at it for a few months, with the promise not to tell his friends about his special access.

In the end, I expected to be able to keep the iMac. But just week’s before Apple’s hot-selling all-in-one Mac first went on sale, they sent me a firmware update, which somehow bricked the machine. I don’t know if that was deliberate or not, but it also meant that I had to return it for diagnosis. Oh well, it would have been nice to be the first on the block, but that’s how it goes.

Now Apple confronted a spate of harsh criticisms from the Mac faithful at the time, because they ditched all the proprietary ports, such as ADB and LocalTalk, in exchange for USB and Ethernet (which had originally trickled down from high-end models) when they introduced the iMac. Now USB, in those days, was strictly the province of the PC. Yes, there were adapters to allow you to use your old input devices and other peripherals, but the handwriting was on the wall. Within a year or so, as the rest of the Mac lineup fell in place, companies could build one device, such as a printer or a scanner, and have it work on a Mac or a PC simply by supplying compatible drivers.

That, and abandoning standard SCSI ports and all the misery they caused brought Macs closer in design to standard personal computers.

Please don’t ask me about the infamous hockey puck mouse. A nice cottage industry arose around that time, servicing folks who wanted sensible extensions to the mouse, so that misbegotten device would look almost normal. But it was just as cheap to buy a separate mouse, normally shaped, and be done with it.

Of course, one of biggest changes began in mid-2005, when Steve Jobs confirmed the published rumors that Apple planned to ditch the Power PC and move to Intel processors. At the time, if you follow this site, you’ll know I greeted the news with great anticipation. Others didn’t feel so optimistic, and there was criticism at the time that Apple was abandoning a superior processor architecture for nefarious reasons, and would suffer greatly.

That was before the entire Mac line transitioned to Intel in months, rather than the expected two years. More to the point, Apple is now moving nearly three times as many new Macs each quarter than they used to. Today’s Macs also benchmark a lot faster than their predecessors, and, all in all, the Intel transition was actually a good thing.

What it means, of course, is that the internal workings of the Mac and the PC have become extremely close. They share processors, graphic chips, hard drives, optical drives and support circuitry. This is what makes it possible for hobbyists to make those unauthorized Mac OS clones, of course.

Then there’s Mac OS X. Although the higher levels are proprietary and controlled by Apple, the underbelly, the so-called Darwin core, is open source, and uses a number of traditional Unix tools that power users know all about. You’ll even find such things as the Apache Web server and MySQL among the hundreds of thousands of files that make up the typical Mac OS X installation.

The operating system is also incredibly portable, meaning that Apple can make it work on different processor platforms in fairly quick order. While the original NeXT operating system, on which Mac OS X is based, began on the original Motorola 68K family (the Power PC’s predecessor), it did move to the Intel platform years ago. So Apple already knew what was required to return to x86 chips, and that’s one of the reasons the transition was handled so seamlessly.

The iPhone and iPod touch use ARM-based processors, and OS X too, and Apple apparently managed that migration pretty well too, although they had to postpone Leopard’s release by several months to finish the job. This is not a process, as Microsoft should know but doesn’t, that you can speed up simply by adding more bodies to the code mines.

Where Mac OS X and Apple’s technologies will go next is an open question. But by embracing open standards in many surprising ways, the original iMac paved the way for Apple’s incredible 21st century resurgence.

Sure, you may argue that today’s iMac is perhaps a little too slick, and the glossy screen is certainly a controversial matter in some quarters. But it is not just descended from the original version in 1998, but the very first Mac in 1984. Then as now, the mainstream Mac was meant to be an all-in-one personal computing appliance.

You may debate the use of the term “appliance” for any personal computer, even now, but it’s clear that, despite all the ups and downs, Apple has come a long way towards achieving that worthy goal.