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Weekly Column

The Power of X: How the Best Thing for Apple, for Users, and Even for Microsoft, Would Be an Intel Version of OS X

Status: [CLOSED]
By Robert X. Cringely

Jon Shirley, the only CEO of Microsoft to be universally identified as a grown-up, told me during his last week at the helm that the best thing that had ever happened for Microsoft's language business was Borland International and its language business. Borland, under the wacky Philippe Kahn, gave Microsoft fits. Borland languages were often better than Microsoft's, and always cheaper. The result was that Microsoft, even though it continued to be the larger player in that business, couldn't coast. Borland forced Microsoft to be a better company for its customers, which is exactly what Jon Shirley was talking about. Now look at the problems Microsoft has today, and you'll see that they all come down to a lack of credible competition. Netscape was good and made Internet Explorer better, but today nobody at Microsoft even pays attention to Netscape, just as they no longer pay attention to Novell in networking or, alas, even Borland in languages. Microsoft has killed all the competitors, or at least cowed them to the extent that there is now plenty of excess bandwidth in Redmond for megalomania. This is bad for Microsoft and for its customers. Jon Shirley knew that, but I don't think that Gates or Ballmer do. So the best thing for Microsoft would be a formidable competitor. This kinda sorta exists in Linux, except that Linux isn't organized in any sense, and Linux attacks only Microsoft provinces, not the homeland itself. What is needed is competition for the desktop, and for that, there is really only one other game in town. I think Apple should market a version of OS X for Intel computers.

But haven't we been here before? What about those Mac clones that Steve Jobs killed as quickly as he could? No, this is different. I am not talking about Macintosh clones, but about a version of OS X intended to run on regular PCs. So there would be no Mac ROMs and no head-to-head competition with Mac hardware. Most of the required middleware could be bought or licensed by Apple from Abacus Research and Development Inc. (ARDI) in Albuquerque, New Mexico. In a few months, Apple could have a perfectly fine Intel port of OS X ready for market.

Let me point out here that I have no idea that such an Intel port of OS X even exists. I have no inside information. This is just what I would like to happen.

For those who aren't familiar with OS X, it is a full implementation of BSD Unix with a Macintosh front end, which is to say world class inside and out. OS X is faster, smarter, prettier, and easier to use than any version of Windows. In short, it is exactly the competitor Microsoft needs. And the timing couldn't be better. Microsoft's settlement with the Department of Justice, no matter which version finally sticks, will make it easier for competitive operating systems. While Microsoft will still dominate, it will likely not be in its old position of being able to threaten with death hardware companies that take a divergent path. In fact, Microsoft's lawyers at least would love a credible OS X for Intel because it would make it appear as though Microsoft actually has competition.

There simply is no technical problem with porting OS X to alternate hardware. Where there is a problem is in getting everyone to see what a great idea it really is. Steve Jobs of Apple has to worry that the new version would hurt Apple hardware sales, just as did the Mac clones. But I don't believe that would be the case. Let's say someone started a sports car company using engines and transmissions bought from Porsche. How many people would buy that new car, the Belchfire 400, over a Porsche with similar power and performance? None. Porsche buyers buy Porsches for the brand as much as for the engine. Belchfire 400 buyers would come from the ranks of Corvette and Viper owners, not Porsche owners. Same with OS X on Intel. Dell, Gateway, and Compaq users are the target market. Macintosh users will always buy Macs. This is what Steve Jobs has to come to understand.

The other thing Steve has to accept is that OS X on Intel has to be just as modern as any other OS X. He'd be tempted to keep the Intel code one version behind to give Apple a built-in advantage, but that wouldn't be good. It would hobble the product and hobble the marketing at the same time. For Apple to sell a crappy product on Intel would be like Disney selling porno movies in Thailand. It would change how Apple defines itself. That would result in a lot of unhappy customers that either Apple would have to spend a lot of time listening to, or Apple would have to change its culture to tune out all those customers and become just like Microsoft. Go back to the last paragraph and read it again, Steve. OS X on Intel is no threat to Apple hardware.

And while it might be easy to throw a shrink-wrapped version of OS X on store shelves and essentially compete with Linux for the OS conversion market, what is really needed is an OEM strategy. Apple has to get name brand vendors like Dell, Compaq, and Sony to sell boxes that come with OS X already loaded. The Microsoft settlement will allow it, but unless companies actually do it, any advantage over Redmond will be lost. I think Dell, especially, would be in a stronger negotiating position with Microsoft if OS X was an option on its price list.

The upside for Apple is enormous. Suddenly, their software budget is leveraged across a much larger number of units, making the company more profitable and able to spend even more on making the software better. And there is always the prospect that OS X will have some real impact on the market, making life harder for Microsoft and making Microsoft better for that.

It changes the playing field completely, and here's how. What is Apple selling? I would argue that Apple sells, "We are the computer company that cares about you. We try to build the best products we possible can." There's a level of trust and loyalty that people give Apple that is unmatched in the industry, and rarely matched outside it. Apple has that reputation because the company listens to customers. Yes, they make unpopular decisions, and a lot of people hate Apple. But Apple customers don't generally feel that way. They generally feel that Apple is doing the best that it can. Can Microsoft say the same? No.

So Apple has to make at least a "good faith" effort with this OS X port, reflecting the realities of Intel hardware. They have to deliver something they are proud of, that customers feel is worthy of the Apple brand and the trust relationship that implies. Now, maybe the economics of that work out, and maybe they don't. My point is not the finances, but the brand. The brand is the iconification of the trust relationship. If Apple can extend that trust to Intel hardware, then Microsoft is in real trouble. Because the only way Microsoft can compete on those terms is by growing a soul.

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