|Saturday, April 8, 2006
03:28 - I cringe
Oh, so now Cringely thinks it's time to put OS X on beige boxes?
The bulk of this article—via James Sentman—is about Vista and Dell and Microsoft's current travails, but his insights about Boot Camp leave me pondering what was in his breakfast muffin. First of all:
Boot Camp, itself, is unexciting. So you can boot into Windows or OS X, big deal. You can't boot into Windows AND OS X. You can't cut and paste data between the two OS's or even access the same data, as far as I can see. For this you'd need Virtual PC - a Microsoft product - if only a version existed for the IntelMac platform.
Uh... yeah, if only. Good thing we don't need Microsoft for this.
Now, he's right when he says this:
Boot Camp makes no revenue for Apple and never will. IT IS BETA SOFTWARE. I doubt that its existence, especially as a beta product, is going to make some Fortune 500 company suddenly sanction the purchase of Macs because they can, with some effort and an extra $100, pretend to be Windows machines. While Boot Camp might help show prospective purchasers the superiority of Apple hardware, those purchasers would have to buy their Macs first and then convince themselves that they had done the right thing, which is totally backwards.
...Which means that the scenario of Apple preloading Windows on its Macs so as to go after business customers is probably pretty far-fetched. But that helps undermine his point that Boot Camp is a gold mine for Microsoft; as it is, Boot Camp users are Mac buyers who already have a copy of Windows lying around. Sure, "product activation" might prevent people from installing it on two different computers, but Boot Camp's primary audience is using it to consolidate their computers down to one box. And even if people do want to buy legit copies of Windows to keep on multiple machines (including their Macs), Cringely might be overstating Mac users' significance to the Windows market by thinking that Microsoft will be giddy at the thought of all those additional units of sales.
Cringely speculates on the nature of Apple's and Microsoft's relationship being peachy-keen at the moment, and I doubt he's too far off—except that Microsoft doesn't yet appear to have committed to an Intel-native version of VirtualPC. And, as mentioned before, they probably won't have to. Same deal with how they've ditched development on Mac IE and Mac Windows Media Player—they've conceded that others can produce the same solutions or better, for free, and Microsoft doesn't have to lift a finger. Why should they? It's not like they get anything out of the deal.
So in general the article is more or less accurate, if speculative and difficult to disprove (as is all the best weasely tech writing by columnists who get paid by the "You heard it here first, folks"). But then he concludes with this:
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.
That's the point when, as Koppy used to write, the game turns.
Yeah. That's also the point where Cringely loses the plot.
Like Ulanoff, he seems to completely miss the point of Apple's Intel switch. It is not so they can just "be more like the PC world". It is not so they can become a hardware integrator bundling Windows. And it is not so they can start licensing OS X after twenty-some years of refusing to do so, in the face of ridicule from stem to stern over this "fundamental mistake" made back in the early days, without which Apple could have dominated the world.
Look again at the tiny little investment in technology that Boot Camp represents: probably no more than a few weeks worth of work, gathering drivers, tweaking a bootloader, repackaging a non-destructive disk partitioner they've probably had sitting around for ages. I wouldn't be surprised if it were the pet project of some rogue engineer who slapped it together during IntelMac development, just because he could—and when he (naturally) followed along with the OnMac.com people's efforts, he would have gone to his superiors when they succeeded and proposed productizing his own Windows-on-Mac solution. Apple, true to form, wanting always to have total control of the widget when possible, would have thought briefly about the ramifications and potential pitfalls and then said yes. Voilá.
Compare that with the technical efforts that would be needed for Apple to refit OS X for generic x86 hardware. All those drivers? All that compatibility testing? That wouldn't be some afterthought by a guy in a lab; it would involve buying a new campus or two.
Not to mention the business ramifications. True, selling software makes for great margins; but Apple's business has always been in selling Macs. There's a reason why their margins are at 30% while Dell's have always been around 9%, and it has to do with Macs' generally higher price, not with OS X being sold at the disproportionately high margin usually associated with software. They don't price their Macs by including a $129 copy of OS X as a separate line-item on the feature list—it's always rolled in and presumed, not some cash-cow value-add. Thus a captive market for both new sales and upgrades is created. Besides, OS X's price reflects the relative simplicity of developing it compared to Windows'; if Apple were to try to build in driver support for the universe of generic PC hardware, they'd never be able to sell OS X at its accustomed $129 price point, let alone the $99 that Cringely suggests—or if they did, it would be the software they're selling at a loss, not the hardware. But hey, they'd make it up in volume, right?
As has been pointed out so many times it makes me weary to repeat it, if Apple were to sell OS X for PCs, nobody would buy Macs anymore, Ulanoff's beloved "breathtaking industrial design" or not. Lots of PC-based pundits insist that Apple ought to sell OS X for generic PCs; but to me that just betrays their own desire to try this wondrous OS that everyone's always talking about without having to buy a Mac. And that right there would kill Apple's business.
Everybody seems to be overlooking one simple fact about Apple: They don't need to dominate the computer world to be a success for their stockholders. They're profitable right now—very much so—and paying investors out the wazoo. The Apple brand is riding higher than it has since the 80s—perhaps more so than it's ever been before. Kids these days don't sneer and scoff at Macs, they sneer and scoff at Windows, while they wander through the Apple Store in the mall and bob their white-earbudded heads. Apple doesn't need to make any compromises to its business in order to get ovations at shareholder meetings these days. We aren't hearing the name "Apple" prefixed with words like "embattled" or "struggling" anymore. Now the world's beating a path to Apple's door, and they're the ones who get to decide the terms on which the game will be played from now on. If someone suggested to Steve Jobs that he should take this opportunity to sell OS X for generic PCs, he'd throw his head back and laugh—and then ask, quite seriously, Why?
UPDATE: J Greely points out that the non-destructive disk partitioning functionality is already in Mac OS X (as of 10.4.6). Boot Camp just repackages an existing CLI function.
UPDATE: John Gruber explains all this in much greater detail.