The Lite Side

What If Apple Thought Like a PC Company?

Dan Knight - 2007.11.01

From the beginning, when Steve Wozniak chose the 6502 microprocessor for the original Apple computer, Apple has been the "think different" computer company. In fact, it was the Apple II series of computers with its 8 expansion slots that was the model IBM copied when it entered the PC market in Sept. 1981.

Like the Apple II, the IBM 5150 PC was built from off-the-shelf components. It had two full sized drive bays for 160 KB floppy drives, five 8-bit expansion slots, and had room for 256 KB of memory on the system board. Like the Apple II, it had a very primitive speaker and a cassette tape interface: If you wanted to use a floppy drive, a serial port, or a parallel port, you had to add a card.

Unlike the Apple II, the IBM PC had no built-in video. You could choose from a crisp text display on a green screen monitor or a 4-color 320 x 200 CGA display - or both, if you were so inclined and had the budget. You even had your choice of operating systems: The UCSD P-system, CP/M-86 from industry leading Digital Research, and PC-DOS, a less costly CP/M copycat from Microsoft, a company known primarily for their version of the BASIC programming language (standard on most personal computers) and games.

Because IBM used off-the-shelf parts and licensed PC-DOS from Microsoft nonexclusively, the way was paved for the PC compatibles - and the world of Windows as we know it today.

What if, after developing the Macintosh and after the departure of the two Steves, Apple had followed the conventions of the PC clone industry? How different would the Macintosh be today?

680x0 Forever

Perhaps the biggest difference is that Apple never would have switched to Intel CPUs - or had a hand in creating the PowerPC architecture with IBM and Motorola. Just as the PC industry has never abandoned the x86 architecture, today's Macs would be running 2.0 GHz dual-core Freestyle 680150 Extreme CPUs.

There would have been no PowerPC, no G4, and no switch to Intel. Apple would have embraced the 68060 in 1992 - and been stuck at 450 MHz in 1999 as Motorola was unable to produce 680100 CPUs at 500 MHz in quantity. And today's Mac Pro would have two dual-core CPUs at 2.0 GHz, perhaps with a 2.33 GHz option for power users.

System 6 Forever

And since Macs would still be using the same family of CPUs, they would retain compatibility with the 24-bit System 6 operating system forever. Just as Windows lets you emulate DOS, even the most modern Mac would include a 24-bit compatibility mode for System 6 software.

Apple would guard its proprietary designs, never licensing the Mac operating system to cloners. And there would have been no change from calling it System 7.5.5 to Mac OS 7.6. And no silly jump from 7.6.1 to 8.0 just to stick it to the cloners.

What we call Mac OS 8.1 would have been released as System 97, and our Mac OS 9 would have been called System 2000 on its release in October 1999. There would be no NeXT acquisition and no OS X, but we'd still have cats: With System 2003 sounding terrible, they'd probably call it System 10 "Jaguar" or "Panther", followed by System 11 "Tiger in 2005 and System 12 "Leopard" in 2008.

And every one of them would include System 6 mode for legacy software.

NuBus Forever

And just as every move to a new expansion bus in the PC world saw the creation of some systems supporting both the new and old standards, when Apple decided to adopt the industry standard PCI bus in 1995, it would have produced motherboards with one or two NuBus slots in addition to the "new" PCI slots. It would be more than five years before Apple dropped the legacy NuBus slot, as there would always be a few cards that never made the transition to PCI.

You can't abandon those legacy expansion cards!

Floppy Drives Forever

Apple never would have bought NeXT and brought Steve Jobs back, so there never would have been an iMac - or a desktop Mac without a built-in 3.5" floppy drive. After all, you need a way to install that legacy System 6 software and drivers for those legacy NuBus cards!

SCSI Forever

With no iMac, there would be no reason to abandon the legacy SCSI port found on the back of practically every Mac desktop and notebook computer since 1986. It would still be there today, supporting ancient hard drives, scanners, tape drives, oddball printers, and other legacy hardware.

But it wouldn't be alone on the back of the Mac. Although we'd have FireWire and USB 2.0 support by now, there would also be a legacy ADB port and a legacy AppleTalk/printer port. Gotta retain compatibility with the Extended Keyboard and those pre-ethernet LaserWriters!

Beige Boxes

There would be no iMacs, no all-in-one Macs at all. And there would be no Mac mini, as a plethora of expansion slots and drive bays are way too important to successfully marketing a computer. Not that today's Macs would look like today's PCs - they'd still be using the "Snow White" design theme introduced with the Mac II, and today's Macs would be squarish and made of beige plastic.

There would be no slot-loading drives on notebooks, let alone nice covers to hide optical drives. Everything would be made with the lowest cost quality components; no need to spend extra money on aesthetics.

And let's not forget the greatest feature of modern Windows PCs: Those ugly multislot memory card readers would have made their way to the front of Macs years ago, along with poorly placed USB ports nearby. (How many of you have struggled with slipping a flash drive into a USB port so close to the floor that you could hardly position it correctly?)

Windows Compatibility

Just as Apple encouraged AST to produce DOS cards for the Mac in 1987 and released its own Macs with DOS cards a few years later, Windows PCs on a card would be a fully supported option today. Just imagine dropping a 3.0 GHz dual Core 2 Duo card into your 2.0 GHz Mac Pro Extreme!

Software emulation would also be an option - and every bit as sluggish as we remember from the days of SoftPC and Virtual PC.

Owning Its Niche

In terms of ports, expansion, features, and legacy support, the Macs would hold a back seat to no one. Which, of course, means that ATI and Nvidia wouldn't be investing a lot of money in making graphics cards that worked with the oddball Freestyle 680x0 family of CPUs and Apple's proprietary operating system.

3D gaming on the Mac? What 3D gaming?

But the Mac would absolutely own the publishing world and be the first choice of musicians both for scoring music and mastering it. We'd still be debating PageMaker vs. Quark XPress, the same music transcription programs would exist, and GarageBand would be every bit as successful as it is today.

A 680x0-based Apple could be big in the video realm as well. After all, it was Motorola which created AltiVec, the engine that gave the Mac a jump start into digital video editing.

But most of all Apple would be a nice player if it had thought like a PC company, had invested too much in backward compatibility and legacy support, and had refused to change when the world left its CPU family behind. And it would be lucky to sell 2 million computers a year, let alone more than that in a single quarter.

Thank you, Apple, for taking risks and being innovative. They you for thinking different!

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