The Future of Apple

Tom Anderson, 2005-06-06

Apple recently announced that they will be moving from PowerPC to x86 chips in their computers; i am going to take this opportunity to make a prediction:

Five years after the first consumer x86-based Mac ships, Apple will no longer be selling personal computers or a personal computer operating system.

I sincerely hope that i am proven gloriously wrong some time around 2012.

My reasoning is the same as you can find emerging from the mouths and fingers of pundits all over the world: by selling x86-based machines, Apple makes itself a direct competitor to both existing x86 computer makers, eg Dell and HP, and existing x86 operating system makers, ie Microsoft, and those are not wars it can win. Apple depends on fat margins on its hardware; it won't be able to maintain those on x86 hardware, in competition with very efficient and thin-marginned operations like Dell, without the architectural difference it has now to make price/performance comparisons fuzzy. Apple depends to a certain amount on customer loyalty and inertia to keep its users away from Windows; with the ability to boot into either on Apple hardware (and you can bet Microsoft will make Windows able to do that), this is going to be much harder. Basically, Apple won't be able to maintain the Mac as a different thing to the PC, and that means they'll be crushed by the existing PC heavyweights.

The interesting thing about this analysis is that it's a bit like Maxwell's wave equations: it actually has two logically possible solutions, one of which is completely ludicrous. In Apple's case, the second solution is that it will kill, or at least mortally wound, Microsoft. Apple hasn't shown any signs of aiming to do this yet, but then they didn't exactly advertise that the x86 switch was coming up. Could they do it? Well, on a technical level, i think they could: the key is to make MacOS able to run Windows applications - and to do so perfectly (or rather, well enough), and without needing a copy of Windows. This isn't pie in the sky - OS X already supports multiple application environments (unix, Carbon, Cocoa, Classic and Java), and so does BSD (Linux binaries and some other unices, i think); adding Windows support would be a lot of work, but feasible. If Apple can do that, then Windows users can switch to MacOS without throwing away the hardware and software they already own, and the MacOS/Windows war becomes a struggle between the operating systems themselves, rather than between installed hardware/software bases as it is now. That's a battle MacOS has a fighting chance of winning - Apple is ahead on ease of use, visual gloss, stability, search technology and a bunch of other things.

Another arm of this strategy would be to port Cocoa to Windows; Cocoa is by all accounts a joy to develop with, so companies might well want to use it for Windows development even without the side-effect of easing porting the Mac. This would be an important long-term step in a Microsoft-beating strategy, since Microsoft's hold over the Windows API could make life very difficult for Apple.

So, will Apple do it? Well, i'd put money on there being a Mac in Cupertino that can run Windows applications natively (to some extent) right now; it would be insane not to at least have toyed with the idea. Whether they actually bring it to market, though, is another question. Apple has a history of technical brilliance and business incompetence; i wouldn't put it past them to fluff this up.

So, what happens if they don't? I think it's the end of Apple as a personal computer company. However, this is actually rather well timed, since the early 21st century is the end of the personal computer. Allegedly. Not the end of computing machines, of course, but the end of the computer as a distinct appliance in the home - we're entering an age where every machine is a computing machine, where your TV, mobile phone, music player, etc do all the stuff you currently need a PC for. Apple already make a range of music players (these "i-pods" you may have heard of), have a phone in the works (although Apple's works have a habit of sending more products to design museums than the market) and are getting into distributing video online (don't have a link to hand right now). Indeed, i think this is probably the big picture; the x86 shift is just a small part in Steve's masterplan.

Will this plan work, in the medium term at least, without a strong personal computer element within Apple? I'm dubious about that. The Mac is very much the psychological and spiritual heart of Apple; a company based around iPods and, say, very nice flatscreen TVs is not a company that can have Apple stature.

You know, it's actually kind of funny watching so many people - myself included - get so fired up over an instruction set. I wonder what Alan Turing and Conrad Zuse, sitting in their respective bathtubs in the late 1930s, would have made of that.

Update: Cringely's even crazier than i am!

Updater: Cringley kneels before my awesome insight ...