Chair Force Engineer

Friday, October 23, 2009

Controlling the Platform

For once in my life, I'm actually excited about upgrading to the new version of the Microsoft Windows operating system. After the major embarrassment of Windows Vista (which could never shake the somewhat-true perception that it was bloated and slow) comes a refined, streamlined Windows that breathes new life into computers from the 2003-2004 time period. I'll probably take advantage of the upgrade after I stick more RAM in my custom tower PC. I'll even forgive Microsoft for the fact that the new OS carries the confusing name "Windows 7" when it should be "Windows NT 6.1."

At the same time, the Mac fans are using the new Windows rollout to justify the fact that they've had a rock-solid OS for years. The Mac OS X family is based on BSD UNIX and benefits from the fact that few virus-writers want to spend their time attacking systems that only 11% of the population use.

If Mac OS is so great, why doesn't Apple release it for everybody to run on their PC's? It's theoretically possible, since the Mac platform migrated to Intel CPU's back in 2006. But Mac OS for Intel-based systems still requires Apple's firmware on your motherboard in order to run. Apple is primarily in the business of selling hardware, not software (Microsoft's business model is the exact opposite.) In Apple's view, having a good OS helps to sell hardware. (Intel's thinking isn't very different, as every Windows upgrade helps Intel to sell the more powerful hardware that the new Windows requires.)

With the brief exception of the mid-90's Mac clones, Apple has maintained exclusive control of the Macintosh platform. Is that a good business model for the PC industry? The conventional wisdom is that the openness of the Intel-Microsoft architecture has been good for the PC industry as a whole. But it may not be good for the individual PC manufacturers. Case in point is IBM, who pioneered the architecture we're familiar with today. "Big Blue" was beaten to the punch when Compaq introduced the first 386-based PC in 1986, and eventually quit the home PC business when it sold out to Lenovo.

It's debatable if IBM could have maintained its position as a market leader if it had adopted the 386 CPU earlier (which it didn't, because Intel refused to let IBM produce its own 386 chips under license.) But that point marked IBM's slide from being an innovator into being an also-ran. From that point on, it was clear that Intel, not IBM, would dictate the future of personal computing.

One of my favorite PC "what if" scenarios is the Commodore Amiga. When the Amiga platform was launched in 1985, it was easily the most advanced personal computer available, capable of pre-emptive multitasking and stunning color graphics with as little as 256 kilobytes of RAM. It was even priced competitively (nearly half the cost of the inferior Macintosh models of the day.) Yet Amiga never caught on like the PC or Mac. It was partly due to Commodore's reputation for producing low-cost computers aimed at the children's video game market, and partly due to an inept marketing department. But it's debatable whether Amiga clones could have saved Commodore from its 1994 bankruptcy. While Commodore could have made money selling its Amiga OS to owners of Amiga clones, Commodore was always in the business of selling computer hardware. Amiga clone computers would have likely taken away sales from Commodore.

It's been said that the Macintosh platform currently controls 11% of the personal computer market. Different flavors of Windows control nearly 90%, and Linux has around 1%. (I don't know if that figure comes from recent sales numbers, or surveys of individuals to see what computers they use at home.) While that might not sound good for Apple, it's pretty remarkable to think that the Apple hardware has an 11% market share. Just think of how many other PC makers dominate the market--Dell, HP, Gateway and Toshiba, just to name a few. I'd be interested to look at the total sales volume for the PC vendors to see where Apple stacks up. It's clear that the company is doing very well for itself.

All things considered, Apple's exclusive control over the Mac platform is good for the company. And regardless of whether your computer runs Mac OS or Windows or even Linux, it's likely that Intel is laughing all the way to the bank.