Pentium envy

As sure as the sun rises in the east, and as sure as there will always be an England, someone will waste your time this year trying to convince you that Apple’s destiny lies with Intel-compatible processors.

If you look closely, you’ll notice that the people making this case are rarely Mac users—instead, they already have Intel PCs or want to buy a stylish Apple PC to run Windows on.

In the media, it’s usually a pundit or analyst trying to stir up trouble or gain publicity—and it always works: every time one of these crackpots makes this nonsensical claim, other media outlets duly report it, inserting thoughtful comments such as “That could work” or “This makes a lot of sense.” Apple support for Intel processors makes sense for Intel, for other PC makers, and for some PC users. But they never tell you that it makes no sense for Apple—and it never has.

Bursting the Bubble

First, forget the notion that Apple’s next great success could be in making an Intel-compatible version of Mac OS X. This would succeed only in rapidly eliminating about 75 percent of Apple.

Apple Computer is a hardware company. Repeat that until it sinks in. Apple makes operating systems to sell its hardware, and it always has. In the last completed quarter, Apple booked 75 percent of its revenue, or nearly $1.1 billion, from selling computers. Non-computer hardware, from displays to iPods, brought in another 15 percent. Every piece of software Apple sells, from iLife to Mac OS X Server to FileMaker Server, brought the company a combined $160 million.

People who say that Apple could increase market share with an Intel-compatible operating system are talking about operating-system market share. But Apple is not an operating-system company, and such a change would instantly obliterate the value of Apple’s hardware, because you could get the power and glory of OS X on a cheap beige-box PC.

“But Apple will sell so many copies of a PC-compatible OS that it won’t matter,” say the folks who want Safari on their PCs. That’s bilge. Apple’s gross margins are among the highest in the industry. On average, the company earns about a $350 profit per computer, more if AppleCare or an Apple display is sold with it. The amount Apple would make selling a boxed copy of OS X for Intel—say, $100—simply wouldn’t measure up.

And in this scenario, the more copies of an Intel-compatible OS X Apple sold, the fewer people would need to buy Apple hardware, and the less money Apple would make. If Apple’s hardware sales fell by half, the company would have to sell more than a million copies of an Intel-based Mac OS every quarter just to tread water. Any less, and the company would shrink—and Wall Street pretty much wants technology companies to grow.

Pretty soon, a huge percentage of Apple’s revenue would just be gone. The retail stores, the stores within stores, and the shelf space would all vanish without hardware sales to justify their existence. Apple could stay in the game only by increasing its operating-system share many times over, by perhaps as much as 20 or 30 percent. That sounds really good, but there’s just no evidence it would happen. Visions of “Mac OS X for Intel” making major inroads against Windows simply because it’s a better operating system are fantasies. The Mac has always been better than Windows. But which platform has the dominant market share?

Such a major shift should be based on evidence, not on wishes for market validation. Hope is not a strategy.

No Hardware, Either

The folks who realize that Apple is not an OS company sometimes propose that Apple “switch” to Intel processors for speed and economies of scale, but rig its OS to run only on Apple-branded hardware.

That’s a laugher: OS X’s entire core already runs on standard PCs. It’s called Darwin, and its source code is freely available. Anyone could take a PC-compatible Mac OS installation disc, copy the Mac OS parts on top of the Darwin core, and be done with it. Warding off such mojo would require re-engineering the entire Darwin layer and eliminating Apple’s open-source philosophy—two great ideas that Apple’s engineering management is far too vested in to give up.

Even if Apple did find a way to limit an Intel-compatible version of OS X to Apple-made hardware, the Internet release of clever patches that allowed you to run OS X on any PC would be slowed only by about two hours (three, tops).

Futility Software

Sadly, any “Mac OS X for Intel” release would be utterly useless out of the box. Every existing OS X program is compiled for the PowerPC processor, and an Intel-based PowerPC emulator would be impossibly slow. Intel chips aren’t that much faster.

Instead, the developers of every OS X application would need to rebuild their programs for this new operating system. And then they’d have to test their programs on different PC hardware. You could expect to pony up for another upgrade, because the cost of rebuilding, testing, and distributing new software would add up fast.

Many developers wouldn’t even bother, since all Mac-compatible computers would also be Windows-compatible. (If Mac OS ran on commodity PCs, then those boxes would run both Apple’s and Microsoft’s operating systems. Apple would have to follow suit to remain competitive.)

The new developer math: “If I write for Windows, I reach all PC-compatible users, even Apple’s new customers. If I write for OS X, I reach fewer buyers. If I write for both, I don’t reach any more people, and it costs me a lot more. So I’ll write for Windows and tell Apple owners to boot into Windows to use my software.” Developers that currently support both platforms could save a boatload of money by dropping Mac OS development altogether—and most executives like saving money.

Abandoning the PowerPC for Intel chips is not an upgrade strategy. It’s an exit strategy.

Like a Bad Penny

You can forgive PC users for wanting Apple hardware or software on their desktops without having to give up the Windows security blanket. It’s harder to fathom paid “experts” trying to foist such effluvium off as insightful analysis—until you notice that if Apple self-destructed like this, their jobs would be a lot easier.

Apple’s unique hardware-and-software combination makes it unlike any other company in the computer industry. It’s not Dell or Microsoft or Sun. Understanding this unique company requires plenty of attention and diligent thinking—trying to force Apple into an existing category is too easy. All this Pentium Envy isn’t being generated for the betterment of Mac users—its purpose is to make Apple fit someone else’s narrow worldview. Don’t let them get away with it.

[ Matt Deatherage is the publisher of the MDJ and MWJ newsletters. ]

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