The Null Device
My mind's still reeling from the possible implications of Apple's announcement of abandoning the PowerPC platform in favour of x86. Here are some thoughts:
- After the change, Apple's hardware will be just x86 hardware. Well-designed, well-engineered x86 hardware, but not an entire separate platform. Apple had been heading in that direction since abandoning SCSI and NuBus, though the change in CPU architectures makes it final. It is speculated that Apple will make it possible for those who want to to boot Windows on their Macs; as such, think of the first non-G4 PowerBook as the Apple Vaio.
- Whether Apple will allow OSX to run on commodity hardware is another matter, though. Commodity hardware means loss of control and quality control, which has undoubtedly contributed to the Macintosh user experience. How aggressively Apple will ensure that OSX doesn't run on commodity hardware is another matter; it may be possible for hackers to get it working (though possibly violating paracopyright laws in doing so). Another possibility is of Apple doing deals with individual manufacturers to allow OSX to boot on their machines. (Sony could be a natural for this, given the tightly-controlled semi-proprietary nature of their hardware; and wouldn't you like an Acer Ferrari laptop with a non-crap OS?)
- Over and above that, it is possible that Apple will separate their hardware and software businesses. If their computers are not anything particularly exotic anymore, why not let someone else build and sell those, and concentrate on adding value? Perhaps Apple will spin off and sell its hardware manufacturing business (and the licence to use the Apple trademark on hardware) as IBM did.
- The future of OSX as a separate operating system may also not be assured. Apple own some high-end software (Shake, Logic, Final Cut Pro), which only runs on their own platform. Now that their platform will run on exactly the same architecture as Windows Longhorn, demanding that people boot to Apple's own non-mainstream OS to run it could lose sales. (Anyone remember Linux-based Final Scratch? That didn't do too well, because its electronic-musician audience didn't want to keep rebooting between using it and their Windows-based software.) As such, it is conceivable that, in some years' time, Apple will attempt to redefine OSX as a set of layers (CoreAudio, CoreImage, Cocoa) that runs over Windows, much as its Windows QuickTime does. The layers could be shipped with copies of their software and installed without the user needing to know about them. The remaining Mac faithful will cringe and cry sellout, and techies will dread the loss of OSX's technical advantages over Windows, but Apple will sell more software and gain compatibility with the Windows standard, and, at the end of the day, that's what counts.
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