Cringely on OS X for PCs
Mark Stephens, AKA Robert X. Cringely, is a smart guy who has good ideas and interesting predictions. Every so often, though, he writes something that makes me wonder, "Is he just saying that to see if we're paying attention?" In 2003, he proposed a business called Snapster that would digitize music CDs and share them freely with all its shareholders, claiming he couldn't find a lawyer who could find a "serious flaw" in his logic -- which made me wonder exactly which lawyers he had been talking with.
Microsoft and Apple are happy with each other for the moment, and rather than representing some Apple attack on Microsoft, Boot Camp just represents the state of their happy partnership. But this won't last for long. It never does.This ignores virtually everything that is fundamental to both how operating systems are developed and how Apple does business today. To call a hypothetical version of OS X compatible with off-the-shelf PCs "a product similar to Boot Camp" is to misunderstand at a profound level how operating systems are developed.
I predict that Apple will settle on 64-bit Intel processors ASAP (with FireWire 800 please), and at that time will announce a product similar to Boot Camp to allow OS X to run on bog-standard 32-bit PC hardware, turning the Boot Camp relationship on its head and trying to sell $99 copies of OS X to 100 million or so Windows owners.
A Mac running OS X is simpler to install, use, and maintain than a PC running Windows because Apple controls both the hardware and the software. Apple only has to design for hardware configurations that it itself has built. Were Apple to ship OS X for "bog-standard 32-bit PC hardware", it would be just as frustrating as Windows. Microsoft has a far more difficult time shipping new versions of their OS not because they're incompetent, but because their task is orders of magnitude larger than Apple's, made so by the unending hardware configurations forced upon them by the commoditized market for PC hardware. In other words, were Apple to ship OS X for any old PC, its ease of use would drop dramatically, while its development and support costs would rise astronomically.
[Could Apple solve this problem by only offering OS X pre-bundled with certain Intel-based PCs? Yes, they could: doing so would limit the scope of the work required. But why would they do this? Users can already buy an Intel-based PC with OS X pre-bundled. It's called a Mac.]
Then there's the issue of margins. I don't know what Apple makes on an iMac, or on a MacBook Pro, but I'm sure it's substantially more than $99 -- hundreds of dollars more. I wouldn't be surprised to hear that Apple makes $500 per system on their high-end laptops and desktop computers. If they were to ship OS X for any old PC, customers would say to themselves, "I can have a Mac experience with cheaper PC hardware," and Apple's hardware business would dry up. Apple would then be dependent on a pure-play operating system business. Users would quickly figure out that OS X was just as difficult to use on their PCs as Windows -- maybe even more so, given how far behind Apple would be in driver support. The customer choice would be between Windows (better driver support, far more applications, bundled with virtually every PC made) or OS X (poor driver support, far fewer applications, only available aftermarket). Apple would have effectively killed their hardware business with no offsetting software business waiting for them on the other side.
Let me put it this way: Steve Jobs is famous for being obsessive about even the most seemingly trivial aspects of design. This obsession has paid off by creating loyal customers who -- whether using an iPod or a Mac -- appreciate how Apple gets all the details right in creating an integrated and complete experience. To me, it's laughable to think that Jobs would give up this control and turn OS X into a generic PC operating system. Leaving aside the fatal usability issues, support costs, and margin concerns described above, what Cringely proposes is impossible on aesthetic grounds alone. I think Jobs would rather have dental surgery without benefit of anaesthesia than see his beautiful software running on clunky PC hardware.
It's not going to happen. And I'm willing to make a public bet with Cringely that it won't.