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Intel inside the Mac–no more question mark

OK, it’s official. Intel has conquered one of the last holdouts: Soon you’ll be able to buy a Pentium-powered Mac.

Of course there are lots of questions now.First of all, Apple having problems with its CPU suppliers is nothing new. Apple’s first CPU supplier was a small firm called MOS Technology. You’ve probably never heard of it, but MOS was a subsidiary of a company you may have heard of: Commodore. Commodore, of course, was one of two other companies to release a ready-built home computer about the same time Apple did. The problem was that the Commodore and Apple computers had the same CPU. Commodore, of course, could undercut Apple’s price. And it did. Commodore president Jack Tramiel was an Auschwitz survivor, and Tramiel pretty much assumed his competitors were going to treat him the same way the Nazis did, so he never cut them any breaks either. At least not intentionally.

When other companies released licensed versions of MOS’ 6502 processor, Apple was the biggest customer. Rumor had it that Commodore was hoarding 6502s.

When Motorola released its legendary 68000 CPU, Apple was one of the first companies to sign up, and the first two commercially successful computers to use the m68K were made by Apple. And life was good. Apple wasn’t Motorola’s only customer but it was one of the biggest. Life was good for the better part of a decade, when Intel finally managed to out-muscle the performance of the Motorola 68040. So Apple conspired with Motorola and IBM to come up with something better, and the result was the PowerPC. And life was good again. The PowerPC wasn’t the best chip on the market, but of the two architectures that you could buy at every strip mall on the continent, it was clearly the better of the two.

Over time Apple’s relationship with Motorola cooled, and the relationship with IBM was off again and on again. Intel meanwhile kept trotting out bigger and bigger sledgehammers, and by brute force alone was able to out-muscle the PowerPC. Steve Jobs got creative, but eventually he just ran out of tricks. Switching to Intel in 2006 may or may not be the best option, but it’s just as easy to do now as it’s ever going to be.

So, now there’s the question of whether this will hurt Microsoft or Linux or both. The answer is yes. The real question isn’t whether it will hurt, but how much. As soon as Microsoft loses one sale, it’s hurt. The same goes for Red Hat.

To me, the question hinges on how attached Apple is to its hardware business. Steve Jobs has only said that OS X has been running on Intel in the labs for years. I have never heard him mention whether the hardware was a standard PC clone motherboard, or something of Apple’s design. I suspect he’s avoiding the question.

It would be possible to make OS X run on Apple hardware and only Apple hardware, even if the CPU is a standard Pentium 4 just like Dell uses. And at least at the outset, I expect Apple will do that. Apple may only have 3-5 percent of the market, but it’s 3-5 percent of a really big pie. The company is profitable.

It would also be possible to let Windows run on this hardware. That may be a good idea. Apple still has something to offer that nobody else does: The slick, easy to use and stable OS X, but on top of that, you can boot into Windows to play games or whatever. It makes Apple hardware worth paying a premium to get.

If Apple chooses to let OS X run on anything and everything, it hurts Linux and Windows more, but it probably hurts Apple too. There’s a lot of hardware out there, and a lot of it isn’t any good. Apple probably doesn’t want that support nightmare.

I think this will narrow the gigahertz gap and, consequently, the speed gap. I think it will help Apple’s marketshare, especially if they allow Windows to run on the hardware. I don’t see it having a devestating effect on any other operating system though. It will hurt marginal PC manufacturers before it hurts software companies.

Go get ’em, SCO!

I’m sure you’ve read it 4.3 billion other places already, but Microsoft has been granted a patent on double-clicking.

Well, there’s something you probably have only read a few hundred other places. Apple obviously had people double-clicking more than a year before Microsoft did, seeing as Windows 1.0 was released in November 1985 and the first Macintosh shipped in early 1984. Commodore had Amigans double-clicking by the summer of 1985. So did Atari.

Guess who supplied Atari with its operating system, since Jack Tramiel failed to swindle his way into ownership of the Amiga?

Digital Research, that’s who. DR provided Atari with a version of CP/M-68K, with its GEM GUI running on top of it. Atari marketed the bundle as TOS, for Tramiel OS.

Digital Research got crushed by the Microsoft juggernaut a few years later and eventually sold out to Novell. Novell then attempted to compete head-on with Microsoft (buying up its Utah neighbor, WordPerfect, and part of Borland in the process) and failed spectacularly. Smelling a rat–Novell believed Microsoft sabotaged some of its applications so they would not run under DR-DOS–it then pawned the Digital Research portfolio off on Caldera, a Linux company run by former Novell executives. The catch? Caldera had to turn around and sue Microsoft. Which they did, successfully.

A few more years later, The Santa Cruz Operation, a small Unix firm, wanted out. It sold its Unix-on-Intel business, as well as the rights to the old AT&T Unix (purchased from Novell, ironically) to Caldera, who soon changed its name to The SCO Group to reflect this business.

Yes, this is the same SCO who is now on a legal rampage, suing anything that moves.

Now, whether Novell or SCO is the more rightful owner of the double-click “innovation” is arguable. But such matters never seem to matter to SCO. It’s a frivolous lawsuit, but Darl McBride and Co. have made frivolous and baseless lawsuits into an art form.

Go get ’em, Darl.

Some day…

It was some day. And someday I’ll get a clue. I had a major confrontation at work today, though it was with someone who never did like me all that much. Everyone who’s heard the story says she was being unreasonable. But I just can’t help but notice one thing: Every major confrontation I’ve ever had in the workplace during my professional career has been with an older woman. By “older,” I mean 20+ years my senior.
I don’t like that pattern.

On a brighter note… I was quoted on CNET! It’s Linux’s 10th birthday, so CNET solicited some opinions. A lot of people said Linux can overtake Microsoft, an equal number said no way, but I don’t think anyone said what would have to take place for it to happen.

Essentially, I said someone with an anti-Microsoft chip on its shoulder would have to bundle Linux and StarOffice, already configured and ready to go (meaning it boots straight to a desktop when you turn it on–no setup questions or license agreements whatsoever), price it at $349, and make it available in places people normally shop.

That’s not the only scenario that I see working, but it’s the one that’d work best. History states people will sacrifice the status quo if the price is right–Commodore and Atari mopped up the floor of the home market with Apple and IBM for most of the 1980s, because they gave you twice the computer for half the money. It’d be impossible to do that today, but if someone with name recognition (say, Oracle or Sun) stamped its name on Taiwanese-made clones (made by, say, Acer or FIC) and got into the distribution channel, pricing it below an eMachine and using an ad campaign like, “We made performance computing affordable for big businesses. Now we’re making it affordable for you,” they’d stand a chance. They’d probably need to go outside the company to run the operation. Maybe Jack Tramiel, a veteran of both Commodore and Atari, could be coaxed out of retirement.

What about applications? An awful lot of home users live with Microsoft Works. StarOffice is better. Internet access? Take a cue from the iMac and stick an icon on the desktop that signs you up for Earthlink. Games? There are tons of open-source games available for Linux. Include any and every game that doesn’t crash XFree86. Cut a deal with Loki to include demo versions of all their games, and maybe the full version of an older title. Loki needs the exposure anyway. Digital imaging? Include The Gimp, along with drivers that talk with a certain type of digital camera. Include a coupon for a decent-sized discount off that camera.

It won’t dominate the market, but I can see it grabbing a decent-sized chunk. It’d do everything a small percentage of the population needs to do, and it would do it cheaply and reliably and quickly.

Will it happen? I doubt it. It’s a risk. For a company to be able to pull this off, this operation has to have little or nothing to do with the company’s core business. Shareholders don’t like ventures that have nothing to do with your core business. As much as Scott McNealy and Larry Ellison hate Microsoft, I don’t think they’re willing to risk hundreds of millions of dollars just to try to steal a couple million sales from Microsoft each year. The company that does it would have to have name recognition, but it’d be best if the general public didn’t know exactly what they sell. A company like IBM or HP couldn’t do it, because they can’t afford to offend Microsoft, and the general public expects an IBM or HP computer to run Windows apps.