Tuesday, June 14, 2005

FUD: OS X on generic PC's

John Dvorak, in PC Magazine, and Jason Brooks, in eWeek (or at least on their respective sites), seem to think it's inevitable that OS X is going to run on generic PC's, sooner rather than later. Maybe, just maybe, it'll happen later, but I don't see it happening any time soon, in spite of their "reasoning".

Follow the Money

Jason at least anticipates that counter-argument that "Apple is a hardware company", but he dismisses it, on the basis that Apple's innovative strength lies in the OS X software. That's mostly true, as far as it goes, but the inescapable fact is that the big bucks are in the hardware, and the move to Intel, done correctly, could lead to huge benefits in hardware-generated revenue with no erosion of OS and application software revenue.

No matter how you slice it, if OS X were to run on generic PCs, Apple might sell more copies of OS X, but it would lose hardware sales to people looking for discounted hardware. As Jason does point out, Apple's advantage in industrial design would retain some customers (like myself), but some significant percentage of sales would shift; even I would give consideration to a generic machine as a kids' computer in the house, or a laptop headed off to college, for example. I can't imagine software sales making up for this.

On the other hand, if Apple ships boxes that can run OS X and Windows XP, but generic PCs are precluded from running OS X, Apple keeps (virtually) all of its existing hardware customer base, and adds to that Windows users who either a) are attracted to Apple's better hardware designs, or b) want the option of migrating to OS X later. All upside, no downside, excluding the Mac users that Apple loses to Windows, which I believe to be a very small number, and even some of them will hedge their bets with dual-purpose hardware.

"Try and stop me!"

...quoting John Siracusa in one of his many excellent Ars Technical columns. Dvorak believes that the hackers who would want to crack Apple's hardware protection won't be denied. Siracusa's coverage of this topic is, in my opinion, much more realistic.

Someday, however...

Apple does retain the ability to release OS X "into the wild" if and when that option becomes attractive. With a little help from third-party software, I have OS X 10.3.9 running on a nine year old PowerMac 7500. The machine has been upgraded with a G3 processor, but otherwise the machine did not match the specs of an OS X-capable Mac: ADB keyboard and mouse, SCSI disk drives, no FireWire or USB at all (when installed). It would not be a reach to run on generic Intel hardware, considering Darwin already does.

So Apple could throw the switch on opening OS X to non-Apple hardware, but I expect it will choose that moment very carefully, and delay it as long as possible while it milks the benefits of building and selling hardware with broader appeal than ever.

What's this BS about spyware and viruses?

Dvorak also seems to think it's inevitable that the new Macs and OS X will attract, and be unable to fend off, a new rush of malware. Maybe I'm missing something, but I don't think he gets it.

It's probably the case that malware authors will be more attracted to OS X if it is installed in vastly larger numbers. (On the whole, I suspect that's a problem Apple wouldn't mind having.) But wanting to attack and being able to carry it off are two different things. Just because the new machines run the same instruction set as Wintel PCs doesn't mean the virus code is now portable; most malware needs to use system APIs to do the damage, and OS X and Windows remain worlds apart as far as the APIs go. Between the need to write portable malware, and the fact that OS X is locked down tighter than Windows (or is less vulnerable, if you're a glass-is-half-empty type), I expect OS X to remain unappealing to malware authors.

Bottom line

I still see way more upside than down in this move for Apple, especially with the potential for increased hardware revenues and a lower threshold for Windows users to explore and ultimately adopt OS X without a precipitous move away from their investment in Wintel. The big question mark in my mind is to what extent, and I'm sure there is some, that people hold off on buying Mac hardware until the switch occurs.


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