Why Apple should consider Wintel

Last week, two major events showed the decreasing power of the Operating System: the first one was the release of Firefox and the second was the release of Konfabulator on the Windows platform. All this got me thinking about how we relate to our operating systems and in particular, about how I relate to the operating system platform I use.

I know mac users will probably flame me for this but I believe that the direct result of this is the need for Apple to start taking a serious look at more of a cross-platform approach. Before you send me irate emails, however, realize that I am a mac user (we have several macs at home and I use an iBook as my primary machine, largely due to the small footprint factor (there are previous few 10 inch screen computers in this world and I am among the list of oddballs that prefer that form factor when it comes to portables)) and that I only want to see the best for Apple, a company that exudes coolness when it comes to marketing and design but one that may be losing the war in the consumer space.

Why I feel now is the time for Apple to consider a change

Over the past few years, Apple has made great headways in the music business, first with the iPod, which now holds a substantial lead over all of its competitors, and later with the iTunes Music Store, which has solidified the company’s position in the emerging world of digital music. Much of that success, I believe, stems from a smart decision to look beyond the mac and start offering like-for-like products on the windows platform. First, it was an iPod that could work with Windows, and then it was iTunes for Windows. Historically, Apple has had many successes on the Windows platform. Look, for example, at the success of Quicktime, which still represents a dominating force in the world of digital video. I believe the embrace of either Windows or Intel as a platform (in the examples I’ve given, it is the combination of both) always benefits Apple as a company. Every time Apple has offered a product on those platforms, it’s been successful. Let’s look at different combinations and the advantages and/or pitfalls of that approach.

Apple and Intel

It’s hardly a secret that Apple has switched CPU providers in the past. While their relationship with Motorola sustained them through the 80s and 90s, the move to the G5 architecture showed a willingness to switch provider. In that case, the provider became IBM, ie. the other provider of PowerPC chip. Who’s to say that Apple could not start holding discussion with Intel, looking to them as a provider of chips for their platform?

One of the possible combination here would be to port the Mac OSX operating system to the Intel platform. The bottom line would be a new market for Apple software product and a third alternative to Windows and Linux on the Intel platform. Darwin, the underlying core of OSX, is based on BSD. It has already been ported to the Intel platform and BSD itself has a rich history of distributions running on Intel processor.

The advantage of this approach is that it would make OSX available to a much wider public. This could translate into higher software sales for Apple (which provides a more end-user focused product than Linux at this time and a more secure product than Windows at this time) and could allow for a rise in the number of developers for the OSX platform as the potential of a larger market could enlarge the whole eco-system. One could foresee a time when iLife would be offered on that platform and Apple could use this as a seed for their new product offering.

On the downside, is the competition presented by Windows and Linux. By some accounts, Apple is now in danger of becoming the third most popular Operating System, behind Linux and Windows. However, one could look at this approach as a way to stem some of the losses. Another downside would be that Apple hardware would no longer be tied to the OS itself so people who want the features of OSX would not have to buy Apple hardware.

By offering their operating system on Intel processor, Apple could find itself with a growing market again in the OS world, providing a solid mainstream consumer alternative to Windows. On the downside, it could be cannibalizing its own hardware sales.

Apple and Windows

All this brings me to part two of the Wintel Strategy: Windows machine from Apple. It is undeniable that the look and feel, the design, and the marketing of Apple hardware exude coolness. The hard work that the Apple design team puts in its products is a large part of the company’s continued relevance in the market and few companies (Sony and Alienware are the only ones that come to mind) in the industry have the kind of following that Apple hardware enjoys.

If Apple started offering hardware that ran with Transmeta CPUs and could run Windows software, one could see an upsurge in the sales of laptop and desktops as part of the Apple business. For the last few years, sales of macs have been sluggish at best and I believe that part of the problem is a skittishness on the part of consumers to be locked into the Apple world, forced to use only Apple hardware and software. With the software being liberated, Apple could look to a slow migration of its hardware platform to Transmeta processors (AMID or Intel could also be contenders).

Why Transmeta? Well, my thinking is that the Transmeta approach is to do software-based processor units through code morphing. If they were to offer a G5 equivalent of their morphing software. This would establish a base line in terms of offering equivalence with current hardware. The next step would be to offer the same hardware but with the Transmeta Intel-based chips, which could then run the windows or Linux platform (or any other Intel-based OS). Users who want to experience the coolness factor of owning a mac would be able to do so and still run the apps that somehow kept them from moving to OSX.

On the downside, Apple would not necessarily hold much of a lead with the operating system. As more and more Intel-like systems go out the door, Apple could loose some of the remaining market share they hold in the operating system. Another potential downside would be the commoditization of the hardware platform. However, I believe they would still be able to hold patents on their designs and continue producing products that look cool.

Sounds crazy, doesn’t it?

Some people will probably dismiss these concepts as plain nuts and I have to admit that it takes quite a leap of faith. To me, however, that leap of faith was made by Apple with the iPod and I believe that they can make it again as a way to increase their overall market share.

The overall downside of this strategy is that it might anger fans, who are notoriously devoted to the company. However, Apple has not really worried about this much in the past. In the 90s, the company started OEMing their hardware platform but decided to pull back when some vendors started representing real competition (remember PowerComputing?)

The question is whether Apple wants to remain a niche player in the computer market. Based on the last quarterly report, it seems that most of the growth is coming from the music business. So maybe this would be a good way to reinvigorate the computing part of the business.

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