Saturday, April 29, 2006

Bootcamp and the future of the Mac OS

Bootcamp and the future of the Mac
Published originally on Typepad 4/29/06

A couple of weeks ago, Apple released the cleverly named BootCamp, a utility that makes it not only possible but fairly easy to run Windows (XP SP2) on a new Mac with an Intel chip. Like many of Apple’s moves in the last few years, this one has attracted a lot of attention from the computer press. We have to assume that BootCamp is part of an Apple strategy to make money. But how will it do so? This certainly looks like it has the potential to be a profound change in Apple's business model. But what, exactly, will the change be?

There are at least three possible answers to these questions. I’m borrowing the three answers from three computer pundits, all of whom I like and respect: John Gruber, Robert X. Cringely, and John Dvorak.

1. Apple is trying to lure Windows users over to Apple hardware. Macs will continue to come with the Mac OS, so if users install Windows, too, they'll be able to compare Windows and the Mac OS on the same computer, and when they do that, they'll see how superior the Mac OS is. This is John Gruber's take.

2. Apple plans to license the Mac OS to other OEMS like Dell and HP and cut into Microsoft's market share in a serious way. This is, as far as I can understand it, Robert X. Cringely's take.

3. Apple is experimenting with Windows on Apple hardware because at some point it plans to stop putting the Mac OS on its hardware and sell Macs specifically to run Windows. This is John Dvorak's take.

It’s hard to imagine three more distinct interpretations of the simple release of a piece of beta software. There's something to be said for all three positions, but I don’t think they’re equally likely. Let me discuss them one by one.

Gruber: "A move of supreme confidence"

John Gruber writes at (the best Mac blog):

Windows is so ubiquitous that the vast majority of Mac users are already quite familiar with it; I see no chance that Boot Camp is going to cause any Mac users to realize that they’ve been missing out on something better. But from the other side, Apple is confident that most Windows users who give Mac OS X a shot are going to prefer it — again, much in the same way that most long-time Mac users preferred Mac OS X to the old Mac OS.

Gruber goes on to say,

This is a move of supreme confidence — Apple relishes the comparison between Mac OS X and Windows XP, and Microsoft has shown enough of Vista via its widely-available beta seeds that Apple quite obviously isn’t afraid of that comparison, either.

But it is not enough for Apple not to be afraid of comparison with Windows. Apple had far less reason to be afraid of comparisons with Windows in the past, and the comparisons were frequently made—and Apple's share of the OS market today is smaller than Linux's. To grow, Apple doesn't have to be as good as Windows, it has to be so far superior that the comparison is spectacularly in its favor.

Gruber says that BootCamp doesn't constitute a frontal-assault on Microsoft, but does constitute a serious threat. He rightly points out that, if the Mac can increase its market share by just a couple percentage points, it will have been a major coup for Apple. I'm not sure how this constitutes a "serious threat" to Microsoft. After all, in order to compare the Mac OS and Windows, those Mac users had to buy a copy of Windows that they probably weren't planning to buy. Still, Apple has so little of the market right now that it has almost nowhere to go but up, so there's some room for optimism.

Some room for optimism—but not much. For BootCamp to work as Gruber expects, it has to get a lot of people to make the comparison, it has to convince an awful lot of those folks to switch from Windows to the Mac, and at the same time, it can’t work both ways, that is, the comparison cannot lead any Mac user to switching from the Mac to Windows. Is this plausible? Nope.

Gruber thinks that BootCamp—that is to say, having two operating systems on the same computer, both of them running well—won't tempt Mac users to switch to Windows, because Mac users already know about the Mac, and they don't feel the temptation to switch. I think he's dead wrong about that, for several reasons. First, the vast majority of normal, non-computer-professional Mac users know very little about Windows. Some of them may use Macs at home and Windows at work, but it would be a gross mistake to assume that just because one uses an operating system every day, one “knows” it. Gruber is perhaps handicapped by his own expertise and the expertise of the folks (both colleagues and customers) with whom he used to work at Bare Bones. My tech support experience with both Macs and Windows in the last twenty years tells me that the vast majority of computer users, know just barely how to accomplish the tasks that they are asked to accomplish daily. This goes for Mac users almost as much as it goes for Windows users. Second, while one might resist temptation when one deals with someone attractive at work, having the attractive person move in with you is a different story. A Mac user whose previous experience with Windows comes only from VirtualPC can be counted on to despise Windows, because VirtualPC is virtually unusable. If you get rid of VirtualPC and instead, get real Windows running natively on good hardware, well, things may change—especially if all Mac software does not show up in UB versions very soon. You spend a little time in Windows, you might actually discover that it’s not as awful as you thought. Third, what most Mac users who know anything at all about Windows know is old news. I will stipulate that all versions of Windows prior to Windows XP, Service Pack 2, were stinkers. But the current version of Windows is not half bad. And Vista is going to be even better.

[Correction 4/30/2006: The three underlined words at the end of the previous paragraph were accidentally omitted from the original post. I like Windows XP, SP2, well enough. It's everything previous that stunk.]

Gruber also thinks Windows users don't know about the Mac. I think he's wrong about that, too. They know, but they don't care. Why should they?

Think about that question seriously for a second—and if you can, try to think about not as a Mac aficionado (if you are one, like Gruber), but as a normal Windows user. Normal users of Windows don't give a darn about operating systems, truth be told. They use Windows because they have to. If there's any choice at all involved, they use Windows because the programs they want to run happen to be available for Windows. Name me one application in common use in businesses and homes that is unmistakably, powerfully better on the Mac than on Windows. Note that I said “in common use.” I’m not talking about Final Cut Pro. I’m talking about business apps like word processors, spreadsheets, presentation software, databases, email clients, web browsers, accounting software, etc. Note also that I said “unmistakably, powerfully better.” iPhoto might be a little better than Google’s Picasa 2, but it’s not powerfully better. Remember, we’re not asking people just to cross the street here; this isn’t Bill’s Pizza Palace vs Steve’s Bistro Italiano. We’re talking about a difference that will motivate people to spend a lot of money and time. Switching from the Mac to Windows does feel a bit like a religious conversion – or perhaps like losing one’s faith completely—because the Mac OS has been, in good part, a religion. I don’t think very many people in the Windows world see Windows as a religion. Actually, many of them are simply indifferent to Microsoft, and curiously, many other PC users hate Microsoft almost as much as Mac users do. But these folks are practical. You aren’t going to get them to spend more on hardware, more on software (remember, they have to replace everything they have now), and invest huge amounts of time learning a new OS, without a good reason, a damn good reason.

If you are a Mac user, you have probably heard someone say (or have said yourself) that the advantage of the Mac as an applications platform, from the user's perspective, is not that it has more good software, but simply that it doesn't have as much bad software. That’s like boasting about the fact that your gourmet grocery store doesn't offer you a lot of choice and what they do have, costs more, but it’s all very good. Comfort yourself that way if you want. But remember, this isn’t about you. This is about the folks who are shopping at Kroger. How do you get them to abandon Kroger and go gourmet? You don’t. The truth is that, while there's a lot of crappy Windows software, Windows also has plenty of good software. And it's not that hard to find.

Apple has only 2 percent of the market, but, says Gruber, "it's 2 percent from the best part of the market," by which he means, "people who care about their computers, and who are willing to pay more for something better." So what? Apple's already got those folks. It's the 98% of the market that apparently doesn't care about their computers that have to be lured to the Mac. They haven't been lured so far. My guess is that the best chance Apple had to win folks over to the Mac was during the pathetic Switch campaign. At that time, Windows machines were especially vulnerable to malware, and the Mac wasn’t. But the Windows world has caught up. The biggest problems with Windows now have remedies. And at the same time, the Windows world has remained a bargain. I recently bought a pretty good, low-end Dell laptop with a 60 GB drive and 1 GB of RAM, for under $600. I have already installed a slew of high-quality free software on it (Firefox, Thunderbird, 2, etc.). And it came with Windows installed. Why would I have wanted to spend more than three times that amount for a MacBook, then spend even more for a copy of Windows to install on it—and deal with the grief of two operating systems?

Even if the economics were in Apple's favor—which they're not—I'm still at a loss to understand in what way Gruber thinks the Mac OS is clearly better, not as an example of user-interface design but as a platform for running programs that get things done. We're not talking about 1986 here or even 1996. We're talking about the start of the art as of 2006. Nobody in his right mind would start using a Mac today.

Cringely: Apple to license OS to Dell, etc.

Venerable pundit Robert X. Cringely has a comment that seems to speak to Gruber's take:

Boot Camp makes no revenue for Apple and never will. ... 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.

Precisely. Cringely goes on to say that Apple and Microsoft will play nice for a bit, and then Apple’s real purpose will be revealed:

Microsoft and Apple are happy with each other for the moment, and rather than representing some Apple attack on Microsoft, Boot Camp just represents the state of their happy partnership. But this won't last for long. It never does.

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.

Let's try to sort this out. There are, oh, several gazillion computer users out there. Apple right now reaches about two percent of them. Another few percent are the propeller-heads who run Linux or Heaven knows what. The souls of the other 95% of users belong to Bill Gates personally. Apple would like to reach those folks in the same way Yahoo and Google want to reach the Chinese, in other words, very, very badly. Cringely thinks that Apple is going to jigger its operating system (with OS X.5?) so that it will run, um, on every PC out there that meets some basic current specs.

I doubt it. Heck, even Microsoft can't get Windows to be compatible with every piece of hardware out there, and it's been trying for years, has an army of testers, has the hardware companies themselves cooperating with it. Remember, for the Mac OS to be worth a damn on, say, a Lenovo laptop, it has to do more than boot up. It has to run well. It has to support the user's printer, and the user's wireless router, the user’s keyboard and mouse, the user’s external hard drive, the user’s scanner, etc.

The strength of John Gruber’s theory (that BootCamp is a no-risk gimmick designed to get people to try out the Mac OS) is that it’s pretty conservative. According to Gruber's theory, Apple really doesn't change its business model at all. It continues to spend a lot of money to develop software that only runs on its hardware, in order to sell the hardware, which is where it makes its money. On Cringely's theory, on the other hand, Apple, which has always made its money mainly from hardware, is thinking of making its money from software instead. That would be a radical change indeed, and a reckless one. The last time Apple tried this was when it licensed the Mac OS to the clone makers. That was an experiment where Apple controlled pretty much all the variables—and it was an abject failure. It’s hard to say whether Gruber’s theory or Cringely’s makes more sense. Cringely’s theory looks crazy, but in its favor, it makes use of Apple’s switch to Intel chips. Gruber’s theory is reasonable, but unrealistic.

Dvorak: Apple will abandon the Mac OS

Which brings us to John Dvorak's suggestion, that Apple is thinking ahead to the day when it stops selling the Mac OS and just sells hardware.

The idea that Apple would ditch its own OS for Microsoft Windows came to me from Yakov Epstein, a professor of psychology at Rutgers University, who wrote to me convinced that the process had already begun. I was amused, but after mulling over various coincidences, I'm convinced he may be right. This would be the most phenomenal turnabout in the history of desktop computing.

Epstein made four observations. The first was that the Apple Switch ad campaign was over, and nobody switched. The second was that the iPod lost its FireWire connector because the PC world was the new target audience. Also, although the iPod was designed to get people to move to the Mac, this didn't happen. And, of course, that Apple had switched to the Intel microprocessor.

It's not surprising that Mac users have reacted so strongly to this suggestion. Indeed, Dvorak says that the ire of Mac fanatics is the one obstacle to the success of this plan. But Dvorak's position makes simple and solid good sense and would appear to have all the hard evidence on its side. Apple switches its OS so it’s based on Unix (which runs on PCs). Then it switches away from PowerPC chips to Intel chips, the very same that are used by PCs running Windows. Then it makes it possible for users, in fact, to run Windows on Macs. I think you really have to be willfully blind not to see where this is going.

Apple has made really good hardware for a very long time, but its market share has been dwindling. Why? Because the only thing that ran on its very good hardware was the Mac OS. Now, the Mac OS was a very good OS, in many respects, but the vast majority of the market didn't care about its quality. Apple spent zillions of dollars developing and improving Mac OS X, and with each release its market share seemed to slide a little bit further. Why? Because nothing runs in the Mac OS that doesn’t run just about as well in Windows. And people don’t buy either the hardware or the operating system for its own sake.

It’s important to emphasize that, contrary to what many Mac users believe, the problem is not that people are afraid of the Apple brand. People love the Apple brand. Apparently it's the one of the most valuable and trusted brands in the world. People—most of them PC owners—can't buy iPods fast enough. They like Apple hardware. They think Apple is a company with sex appeal. So it's not at all unrealistic to say that, if Apple were to go head to head with Sony, Dell, HP, Acer, Alienware and the rest of the PC hardware makers, it could do so with some success. If Apple could retain its two percent of the market without spending any more money on R&D for its operating system, well, why wouldn't it? And if it could abandon the Mac OS completely and double its market share, why in heaven's name would it not do that? Because Steve Jobs has warm and fuzzy feelings about the Mac OS? Get real. This guy is the Alcibiades of the high-tech wars.

Even Cringely acknowledges the practicality of the idea that Apple might sell Macs with Windows pre-installed. He says,

One reason why Microsoft isn't surprised by Boot Camp is because Microsoft has been working with Apple to make sure that Windows Vista runs well on Intel Macs. Apple will support Vista dual boot, though I don't know if they will become a Vista OEM, but I can't imagine why they wouldn't if it will help sales.

I can't either.

If I had to place a bet, I'd bet on Dvorak's prediction. Let me tighten it up a bit and say that, by 2009, Apple will be out of the OS business entirely, or, if it stays in the OS business for its high-end niche market, Apple will nevertheless be shipping the majority of its units with something other than the Mac OS installed at the factory.

I'll say it again. Nobody should start using the Mac OS today.

Final notes

If I say, "Nobody should start using the Mac OS today," am I saying that it was a mistake to buy it in the past? Not at all. In the last twenty years, my wife and I have purchased somewhere between 30 and 40 Macs, for home and business. And I'll say it again: Previous versions of Windows stunk. If you needed Windows in the past, then you are probably already using it. If you did not, then there were excellent reasons in the past to buy a Mac. A handful of Mac customers needed those high-end apps or simply appreciated the fact that many design apps, for a long time at least, really did seem to work better and look better on the Mac OS. (I think a lot of that had to do with fonts, but never mind about that.) Many other Mac users didn't need to network with Windows users or anybody else. The Mac has, through most of its history at least, been easier to use in good part because it offered you fewer options, and there's nothing wrong with that, if the few options are pretty good. But things change. I'm inclined to say that Windows has matured in just the last year or so, with improvements in ClearType, and major improvements in the business of protecting computers from malware. Perhaps I'm wrong about that and Windows has been a reasonable alternative to the Mac for longer than the last twelve months. But not much longer than that.

What about buying a Mac in the future? Sure, why not? Please note that I'm not predicting that Apple is going out of business. On the contrary, while I have no intention of buying another Mac any time soon, I'm more inclined than I have been for years to buy some stock in Apple Inc. I'm not going to buy a Mac because my budget is too tight and I no longer personally have to have the OS. But if Apple does become an OEM for Vista, and if my budget will allow it, I'd be delighted to buy another Mac.

Let me point out also that, while I've framed the argument above as all or nothing, it doesn't have to play out that way. I am persuaded that Apple will be selling Macs with Windows installed, and sooner rather than later. And I can't personally see why Apple would continue to spend millions of dollars working on its own OS when it's going to make more money selling Microsoft's. (Besides, how many big cats are left after Leopard? Ocelot? Bobcat?) But, as Dvorak points out, Apple could sell hardware along with its own enhancements to Vista. And I assume that it could continue to sell Final Cut Pro, Logic, and the other high-end apps that are so closely tied with the Mac.

Finally, I'd like to point out to Mac fans who find Dvorak's scenario unthinkable, that the unthinkable has already happened, and more than once. In the early '80s, Apple—under the leadership of Steve Jobs—dumped the Apple II OS and basically abandoned millions of users. Some of those users eventually bought Macs. Many did not. In the 90s, Apple abandoned the Mac OS for--get this--Unix! I was flabbergasted. The only thing that could have seemed a greater betrayal would have been for Apple to have built OS X on top of MS-DOS. I don't know whether the switch from PowerPC to Intel chips constitutes a "betrayal" in quite the same way. And if you want to, you're welcome to believe that Apple is interested in Intel chips only because IBM couldn't produce a G5 chip that would run cool in a PowerBook.

So, is this the future? Who knows. Insofar as we can see the future right now, Dvorak's scenario seems to me to make the most sense for Apple and everybody else, and by a wide margin. But it's worth remembering here that the future is unknowable. Are the desktop computer operating systems of today really going to remain in vogue much longer? Google could announce something in 2008 that would make the end of the Mac OS seem unimportant.

(Originally published on Typepad 4/29/2006)

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I am an event photographer living in Dallas, Texas.