Mac Musings

David Coursey's OS X on Intel Proposal Just Doesn't Make Sense

Dan Knight - 2003.07.22 - Tip Jar

Low End Mac is concerned about computing value - always has been, always will be.

We got our start because Macs last so long, which makes them a good long-term value. And we look at Mac developments in terms of value, asking how the Power Mac G5 compares with blowout prices on the Power Mac G4, for instance.

We try to make an honest assessment of the dozens upon dozens of models that Apple has produced over nearly 20 years, as well as the most popular clones. And when we find a clunker, we apply the Road Apple label and very clearly spell out exactly what compromises led us to that conclusion.

We have advocated for a low-cost Mac since our first year on the Web, the year before Apple introduced the $1,299 iMac as its low-cost solution. We believe Macs are superior computers - and also that their high prices in comparison to Windows PCs are one of the primary reasons Windows users don't switch to Macs.

Low End Mac would like nothing more than to see Apple produce a compact Mac with a decently fast G4 processor, comfortably fast video, and enough memory so it doesn't seem poky out of the box. We'd be happy to see an 800 MHz eMac motherboard packed in a case with a 40 GB hard drive, 512 MB of RAM, and a Combo drive for US$599.

We think that Apple could increase unit sales by at least 50% by offering such a machine.

You Have to Do Windows

David Coursey, a Mac user, thinks differently. He maintains that the chief reason Windows users aren't flocking to the Macintosh platform is that the Mac doesn't run Windows software natively - and Virtual PC is too slow.

In Monday's editorial, Why I Want a Pentium Mac, Coursey says that the way to win over Windows users is to produce an OS X Macintosh that uses a Pentium (or maybe an AMD Athlon) CPU to ensure that it can also run Windows software at full speed.

Unlike many proponents of the "Macintel" idea, Coursey doesn't want Apple to simply port OS X over to standard Windows PCs. He realizes that Apple is a hardware company - and the integration of hardware and software is part of what distinguishes the Mac from the general sameness of the PC world. So Apple's Macintel would be a proprietary hardware design.

It's the Software, Stupid

Creating a Pentium-based Mac would allow Apple to offer excellent Windows support, but at a very high price. It would give buyers of the Macintel a huge selection of Windows software, but that isn't necessarily a good thing.

For instance, a Macintel wouldn't be able to run classic Mac OS software at all - unless it included a PowerPC emulator. And in that case, the performance of Mac OS 9 and classic apps within OS X-on-Intel would probably be worse than that of Virtual PC on today's Power Macs.

Further, a Macintel wouldn't be able to run native OS X applications unless they were recompiled for the Intel instruction set. All those programs optimized for PowerPC architecture, AltiVec, and so forth would have to be recompiled for x86, and then they'd have to be tweaked for optimum performance on the very different architecture of the Intel CPU.

The time and expense of doing that right would probably keep most Mac developers from doing a top notch job of porting their wares to the Macintel, if they chose to do a port at all.

In the end, Coursey's proposal would create a third platform that is neither Wintel (Windows/Intel) nor PowerPC/Macintosh. Yes, the Macintel would be able to run Windows at incredible speed, but it wouldn't be able to run existing Mac software until and unless it was ported to the new hardware.

To give such a curious hybrid any chance of surviving, Apple would not only have to optimize OS X for the new hardware and create a compatibility environment for Windows, it would also have to make each and every one of its free and low-cost applications available for the Macintel.

Anyone buying the Macintel would gain Mac OS X, Apple's freebie apps, and the ability to install Windows and run Windows software. But they wouldn't have a broad base of Mac software unless the Macintel platform became widely popular and developers could justify supporting another hardware platform. (In which case, why would they pick X-on-Intel instead of Windows?)

You've Got Trouble

Such a monstrosity would have to take great pains to prevent Windows viruses, worms, Trojans, and so on from messing up the whole computer. There's enough risk running Windows on PC hardware, and a bit less when running Virtual PC on a Mac, but the Macintel could result in an OS X machine that would be as susceptible to malware as any genuine Windows PC.

We're Mac users. We're spoiled by a complete lack of new viruses over the past several years. Why in the world would we want a machine that can run Windows?

As for the Windows users, what's the benefit of the stability of Unix if Windows makes the whole setup prone to infection? I just don't see the attraction of X-on-Intel.

Solutions

For those who can't make it on Mac software alone - those who absolutely must use Windoes - the first solution is Virtual PC. It's been around for years, it works, and it's affordable, although it's somewhat on the slow side. In fact, Microsoft will soon be bundling it with MS Office for the Mac.

If that's not fast enough for you, the best solution is a Windows PC, since DOS cards have gone the way of the dodo. Buy a fast enough PC and run your Windows software on that. Share your keyboard, monitor, and mouse using a KVM switch - or connect the PC and Mac via 100Base-T ethernet and use VNC to control a headless PC from your Mac's monitor, mouse, and keyboard.

There are even some PCs that fit into a 5.25" drive bay, so the Windows computer could actually reside inside your Power Mac. (See Monster Machine: G4/PC Hybrid for one user's tale.)

Best of all, by actually running a whole separate Windows computer, you don't put your Mac and its data at risk. Malware may take out the Wintel box, but your Mac will be safe.

With this many solutions for those who want to run Macs but still need to run Windows, I can't see any reason for Apple to create a whole new hardware platform, especially since it wouldn't be compatible with any existing Macintosh software.

Mac OS X on Intel just doesn't make sense.

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Dan Knight has been using Macs since 1986, sold Macs for several years, supported them for many more years, and has been publishing Low End Mac since April 1997. If you find Dan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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