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Following Up on Cringely

This is a follow-up to my entry on Robert X. Cringely's column on OS X for Intel, which led to a Slashdot story on the topic, which led to (as of this writing) over 700 comments there and 100 comments here, and a temporary increase in blog traffic to 200 times normal volume.

First, I should point out that I had a pleasant e-mail exchange with Cringely -- thanks, Robert, for taking this in good spirits. He politely declined my offer of a bet, on what I thought were reasonable grounds. I'm still interested in making a public bet on this. I'm thinking of a mechanism somewhat like Long Bets, in that bets are made in the open, the judgement process is transparent, and the amounts wagered are paid in advance. However, Long Bets doesn't allow time periods of less than two years (I'm up for a year-long bet), and winnings must be paid to pre-designated charities (which is okay with me, but might not be so with some people). If anyone has any alternatives, please feel free to let me know about them.

Second, at least one Slashdot commenter asked, in so many words, who am I and why should anyone pay attention to me? I can't answer the latter, but as for the former, I'm currently COO and co-founder of a firm building simulation-based e-learning software for the US military. (I don't often talk about my current job in this blog -- I like preserving my editorial independence as much as possible.) In reverse chronological order, I've served as:

  • VP Product Marketing at QDesign (digital audio software technologies)
  • VP Developer Relations and VP Business Development at Be (alternative operating systems)
  • VP Product Management at Red Storm Entertainment (games)
  • VP and GM at Virtus (3D modeling and visualization)
  • Senior Product Marketing Manager at Adobe Systems (document production and distribution)
At various companies, I was:
  • A co-designer of Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six (the first realistic tactical first-person shooter)
  • The original designer of Tom Clancy SSN (the first 3D submarine combat simulation game)
  • The original product manager of Adobe Acrobat (uh, it's Acrobat)
You can find my complete resume here on LinkedIn. Does any of this make me especially qualified to comment on the question at hand? That's up for my readers to decide.

Now to the question itself: will Apple ship a version of OS X for Intel as aftermarket software, installable by customers on their existing Windows PCs? Cringely predicted this, and many Slashdot and pseudorandom readers agreed with him. I wrote that it was unthinkable to me, and many readers agreed with that analysis.

Some commenters have said that while I might be right in the main, the issue I cited of limited driver availability wasn't a real issue. These arguments have run along the lines, "If Linux has broad driver support, OS X could, too," or, "Apple could easily induce third parties to write drivers for them." I don't buy either argument, for the following reasons:

  1. Linux driver support is still far less broad than that of Windows, and what gains it has made have come after years and years of effort by a dedicated open source community. Apple can't imitate Linux: it doesn't have the same open source type of community, and it wouldn't have years to wait for the driver situation to improve.
  2. The same is true of inducing third parties to write drivers -- again, Apple would be in a situation of shipping a product that wouldn't work perfectly on a large range of machines for many years. This would contradict their reputation as the easier-to-install, easier-to-use operating system, and so would undermine a key piece of their corporate positioning at a fundamental level.
Other commenters have said that Apple should emulate Be and offer an operating system to people to try for free. If it doesn't work on someone's system, no harm, no foul. If it does work, force them to upgrade after a certain amount of time, or to gain access to certain features. There are obvious problems with this example.
  1. Our strategy at Be didn't work. Now, to be fair, we shifted our efforts to the "zero billion dollar" Internet appliance market, which in the end turned out to truly be worth zero billion dollars, but I don't think we accumulated powerful evidence that our strategy would have worked given time. Yes, we were signing up software developers, but although BeOS ran rings around Windows, Microsoft was able to devote the effort to Windows to make it better -- not in BeOS' range, but better enough to keep developers and users in the fold.
  2. At Be, we carefully targeted our marketing efforts at customers who had a mission-critical need for what we did. Our greatest successes were in the audio processing market, where we offered low-level performance that was dramatically better than that of Windows (or even of the then-current version of MacOS). These customers tended to be highly technical and willing, in theory, to do some hard lifting to install a second OS. The only reason for Apple to go after Microsoft with aftermarket software would be to gain large market share, which would mean they wouldn't be able to focus their efforts precisely as we could at Be.
  3. At Be, we were offering customers certain things they simply couldn't get with Windows (high performance video processing in software, predictably low latency system I/O). Apple wouldn't be able to offer customers anything they couldn't get (in one form or another) under Windows. They'd just be offering them a somewhat better experience -- and that would only be in theory. The driver issues discussed above would probably make the experience less satisfactory than Windows.
A few commenters have opined that Apple will switch from Mach to Windows as its kernel, or abandon OS X entirely for Windows. On the one hand, for those in the latter camp, they have John Dvorak on their side. On the other hand, as one blogger put it, "John Dvorak is smoking crack." Reading the column in question is like reading a Kennedy assassination conspiracy theorist:
The theory explains several odd occurrences, including Apple's freak-out and lawsuits over Macintosh gossip sites that ran stories about a musicians' breakout box that has yet to be shipped...

This may also explain the odd comment at the Macworld Expo by a Microsoft spokesperson that Microsoft Office will continue to be developed for the Mac for "five years." What happens after that?

This switch to Windows may have originally been planned for this year and may partly explain why Adobe and other high-end apps were not ported to the Apple x86 platform when it was announced in January.

If Dvorak is serious, he has gone off the deep end -- truly.

I haven't read anything in the comments that has changed my mind at all about the likelihood of Apple offering OS X as aftermarket software for PC owners. It was unthinkable to me yesterday morning, and it's unthinkable to me now. So what could I imagine Apple doing?

  • Offer Macs with Boot Camp and Windows XP pre-loaded. This isn't a business model change, and to paraphrase, now that Apple has released Boot Camp, we know what they are -- it's just a matter of setting the price. I don't think this is probable, but I don't think it's particularly improbable, either.
  • Offer Macs with some sort of Windows compatibility not reliant on Windows, like WINE. Again, this isn't a business model change. Because it would probably go out with every Mac, it would be a threat to Apple's growing OS X developer community. However, I could see Apple justifying the risk if they felt their Windows compatibility solution was solid -- they could sell OS X + Windows PCs without paying Microsoft a dime, and take $50-100 (that's a guess) out of Microsoft's pocket for each OEM sale lost to a customer who buys an Intel Mac. Again, not improbable, but not necessarily probable.
  • License OS X to PC vendors like Dell. This isn't unthinkable per se, but it's highly unlikely. Jobs shut down a clone market once -- the Mac clone makers -- because they were stealing sales from him without growing the market. In other words, for every Mac clone sold, Apple was missing out on hundreds of dollars in revenue, with nothing to offset it. For Apple to work with a vendor like Dell, they would have to be absolutely convinced that either:
    • Dell would be additive to the existing Mac market -- that every Dell sale would be to someone who would have otherwise bought a Windows PC, or,
    • Dell would grow the Mac market to such an extent as to offset the need for Apple to sell its own hardware -- in other words, by a factor of 5-10.
    It's very difficult for me to imagine Apple leaders convincing themselves of either of these suppositions. What would the evidence be for them?
This has been a fun exercise. Thanks to all the commenters who have participated -- and please feel free to keep the discussion going. And stay tuned for another Apple thought piece soon.

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I would like to point out one way that Apple could control the hardware of innumerable clone manufacturers: Use a virtual machine. This would fit with Cringley’s comparison to something similar to Boot Camp. The user would boot a simple VM hyperv... [Read More]

Comments

The PC-clone vs the Apple Mac business model is the one thing that would prevent Apple from licensing OSX to Dell and others.

But please don't imply that it would be *just* as difficult for Apple to maintain the interoperability with PCs compared to Windows.

I work with Linux, Solaris, Windows and OSX on daily basis. And the Windows takes the cake on crashes and lock-ups. This is an inherent problem with Windows. It's not just about the task of developing support for multiple vendors.

A few more comments...

Homogenization IS coming. No doubt. We're seeing a convergence on technologies and how they work together. But at the same time, it's not as important on what goes on under the hood (chip and peripheral technologies), but it *is* important to what the user experiences; i.e. front-end, gui.

John C. Dvorak is on crack if he thinks that Apple will abandon OS X. Apple's customers use the Mac because of the user experience; the interface. That does matter because the HUMAN interacts with it. Something they cannot get from Windows. Human nature is a funny thing. There will always be people that will look for alternatives, the unique, something that's better, easier...Yes, it's true that technologies is closing the gap. But there will always be differences.

One of the main complains I hear, and has always heard, from the PC user is that the Mac cost too expensive! Well, it's true. This is why the price point has come down and Boot-Camp has been developed. It offers choice at a affordable price! And there's nothing more powerful than offering choice to the consumer.

When Apple announced support for the iPod for Windows. It sent a message. Apple essentially said, "We don't care if OS you use. Just take a look at our iPod and give it a try. It's your choice if you want to buy a Mac or not". The main goal: sell iPods. And did they!

In the hardware realm...
We're taking $250 to $600 a pop per iPod. The markup vs loss is a lot better per iPod than say the Xbox. So, selling iPod was all that mattered. Not the lure PC user to "switch."

This freedom gave the PC users a different outlook on Apple's products. This is a lot different than the anal-retentive Apple of days past. A residual benefit is that *some* PC users that would have never looked at the Mac might give it a look after trying the iPod and being happy with it. Now with Boot-Camp. This also gives the consumer choice.

Now all Apple has to do is deliver a product that performs good enough for those dual-boot customers is competitively priced and makes them happy (not angry because of driver problems, crashes, etc..).

Price will still be an issue. But at least they are offering better prices today and more flexibility.

I think that Cringley is more likel yto be reading the proper chicken entrails as far as OS futures goes. Your take on driver is way off the mark. Drivers are written by the various vendors of devices. it would be a snap for them to support OS X.

Vanni - writing drivers isn't cake-n-pie, and I wouldn't say that it's necessarily 'a snap' to support multiple OS's for every device. Cause, you know, they don't do it (some do, but a negligible amount).

And DS - sigh, what's the point? I don't wanna even get INTO it, and you DO have experience with more OS's on (what sounds like) a more consistent basis than I do. All I know is my XP never crashes. Of course, I reinstall every few months at most (something I tend towards with any OS) and don't take crap if my computer DOES seem to have an issue. If there's something wrong, I fix it, and then everything's fine. But I can't tell you the last time I saw a blue-screen. I'm not saying that you're wrong - again, you've experience with more variations than I. But how I got the magic copy of XP that never crashes (though I'm [at the very least] a power-user and DIY-er who requires high-end performance and wide-ranging support for my devices) is beyond me.

I'm not saying it's inherently better - Linux never crashes on me either - but I dunno, I just don't see it.

Phatt: No Mac user would even consider reinstalling their OS every few months, to ensure good performance or for any other reason. If that is indeed the regimen you follow, I have no doubt your experience with XP is better than the norm. Apple users, by and large, want nothing to do with that hassle.

Point taken Dan. Many people (XP users included) seem to think it's a little over-the-top, but I'm pretty OCD when it comes to e-clutter. Plus, I've slipstreamed my XP so that all updates (to say nothing of my wallpapers, hands-down necessary programs, and drivers) are installed automatically. It takes about 35 mins for me to dump Windows and be back to square 1, with very few buttons to push. All of my data and documents, including persistant data (like bookmarks, emails, etc) is in one folder and backed up consistently for easy transfer. I agree that this is 'too much trouble' for the average Joe, but I also believe in knowing how to care for one's investments. (That wasn't a shot at Apple users, by the way...I mean that in a general sense, and no, you should never have to worry about constant OS reinstallation.)

Anyway, I'll be getting a MacBook (my first Mac) in 3 or 4 days here, and I'm interested to see how it stacks up. I'd love to have a computer that never needed this kind of maintenence, but I'll have to see it to believe it. Maybe that's just my XP-history talking. :P

Anyway, thanks for your perfectly reasonable response. : )

Phatt,

I think what happens is that the average joe (non-techie) doesn't have the knowledge nor the desire to do what you do to keep your XP healthy.

On the other end of the spectrum...the data-centers have to deal with XP on a major scale. And when dealing with Windows, with multiple software packages and services. It can be a headache to maintain and support. It seems that the middle ground XP users; i.e., both semi tech-savvy and not required to provide professional/large volume support is where XP is good.

Solaris/Linux and OSX just seem to worth better in all categories. So, whether you are a non-techie average joe or an advanced multiple system support tech. Over the long haul, they just don't have as many problems as XP.

Although, I would agree that Linux isn't yet an average joe system. The gui has improved a lot since 1991! X.org is awesome! It's much faster than xfree86.


Edit: Make that Solaris/Linux isn't for the average Joe. But it does just work once setup because it was made to be stable for long time periods.

What's funny is that we had secretaries use Solaris/Framemaker or for years or now Linux/Open Office. No problems once they learned it. Although, not sure they would feel comfortable installing software on their own. It was easy for the IT department to support.

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