This may seem a little off topic for my blog, but long before I was a political nutcase, I was a Mac and Windows techno geek. It is, after all, my day job. so I wanted to comment on the big news coming out of Apple Computer yesterday.
If you’re reading this post, and thus have a computer, then you no doubt know the name Apple Computer. Either as the “founder of the modern personal computer age” in the 70s with the Apple II or the subsequent release of the Macintosh computer in 1984. Even though Microsoft is the most obvious sucess story of the computer industry, it was Apple that introduced much of what we know of today as our own Personal Computers.
Let me explain first what a “microprocessor” is and what this “switch” to Intel means in layman terms. First, some technical jargon. The Microprocessor, or Central Processing Unit (CPU) is the heart of every computer. It is, literally, what makes computers tick. When you see the numbers like 400MHz, 900MHz, 1.5GHz, 3.0GHz and so on these are the speeds of the CPU and thus the speed at which your computer “ticks”. The faster it ticks.. the faster it can get your work done.
There are a number of companies that make CPUs for a wide range of products, not just computers, but only four companies, Intel, AMD, Motorola, and IBM make the CPUs that go into computers that you would buy at Best Buy, Future Shop or the Apple Store. Intel is the most ubiquitous company out there for CPUs simply because it is the CPU that Windows requires to run. Windows cannot run on any other CPU. Apple computers, on the other hand, have never run on Intel processors, they have always used processors from Motorola and IBM.
The strategy that has always set Apple apart from Microsoft has been it’s integration of the “hardware” with the “software”. Where as Microsoft simply sold the “Windows” operating system, Apple sold both the “MacOS” operating system as well as the computer to run it on. The actual “Macintosh” computer and the “MacOS” system that it uses are essentially one and the same… as far as Apple is concerned they are inseperable. You can’t simply go to your local Best Buy or computer shop and grab a computer and throw “Mac” on it like you can Windows.
This tight integration with software and hardware has always been Apples greatest strength along with its’ greatest weakness. It meant that Apple could control absolutely the “out-of-the-box” experience, which meant their users were presented with a system that “just worked”. In the early days, the CPU Apple used didn’t matter because they thought that this strategy of absolute control would produce such a good product that people would have no problem with it always being an “Apple” computer. That was where Apple lost it’s grip on the personal computer industry to Microsoft. Windows was not tied to any specific computer vendor and could be installed on any computer that you picked up from the store. This made it easy for businesses to find the best deal and for personal computer users to build their own computer. Apple survived, but was forever relegated to relying on its’ core fanbase of users who valued the tight integration and were willing to pay a little more to get the ease of use.
And so we come to today… Apple computers, and thus Motorola and IBM CPUs have only about 3% of the total personal computer market. The other 97% use Intel processors.
So how is Apple going to grow their market share? Well the first logical step would be to use the same CPU as everyone else. And that means switching their computers from IBM and Motorola, to Intel.
This doesn’t mean that Apple will suddenly stop making their own computers and sell only the MacOS software to compete with Windows. Au Contraire, I don’t expect Apple to do that at all, at first. What Apple will do first, I believe, is make the simple switch to Intel CPUs in their computers. That way, they still have tight control over the user experience but gain the enormous economies of scale and reasearch and development power that Intels ubiquity provides. This means lower overhead costs and faster CPU speeds for Apple and perhaps lower computer costs for us, the consumer. Apple announced that their first computers with Intel processors would be released this time next year (June 6, 2006).
However, that simple switch is still ground breaking for us users, and it starts Apple down an inevitable path. The mere fact that they use off-the-shelf Intel CPUs means that you and I could build a computer that has the exact same pieces as the Apple computer… except for a few minor components… and run the MacOS X operating system instead of Windows. Those minor components will require software to work, but there is no doubt in my mind that companies and individuals will provide that software… and probably for free.
Or, if you already own a computer running Windows, you might be able to buy MacOS X from Apple and install it instead of Windows.
The long term question is this… how easy will Apple make it to install MacOS on computers from your local Mom&Pop store? Will they compete with Windows and Microsoft directly?
I think they will… and I think Microsoft has reason to worry.