Missing the forest for the trees

Chris Seibold at AppleMatters gets the ball rolling in one of the most dunderheaded arguments the Macalope’s ever seen.

Is Apple is going to switch to Apple chips for the Mac? The question arises because Apple uses an in house design to power the iPad.

The arguments for the switch are abundant:more control, more profits, a chip expressly designed for Macs. Seems good on the surface but what if the Mac’s surge in popularity is predicated on the chips from Intel?

He goes on to provide a series of charts that show the line for Mac sales rising precipitously after the Intel switch. But a coincidence of timing does not necessarily imply causality.

Over at ZDNet, Adrian Kingsley-Hughes thinks he knows the real reason behind Mac sales.

I have a different idea, one that’s linked to the Intel CPU, but not directly.

Boot Camp. Yep. My take on the Mac sales explosion is that it was the ability to set up Windows on a Mac as a dual boot OS was what really made Macs both viable and relevant.

Intel CPUs made Boot Camp possible, so in a way it was Intel that helped boost Mac sales, but only indirectly. What really boosted Mac sales was Windows.


The Macalope really can’t believe this argument. It’s like watching two medieval barbers arguing whether leeches or bloodletting saved the patient.

Certainly the switch to Intel chips and the consequential ability to run Windows were contributing factors. The PowerPC was increasingly unviable for running a desktop operating system and there’s a good argument to be made that Mac sales would not have taken off if Apple had stuck with it and fell behind in speed. But that’s different than the chip driving sales. It was more like a pre-condition. Kingsley-Hughes is right that most people don’t care what processor is in their computer. Why should they? They just care about what the computer can do. But how many Mac users really run Boot Camp? Maybe the thought that it was always there if they needed it provided some comfort, a foot in the door, but if anything they were trying to get away from Windows, not run it on different hardware.

The Macalope would contend that three larger contributing factors than simply the brand of processor or the ability to run Windows were:

  • Microsoft’s inability to ship a viable alternative to XP for nine years. This is probably the biggest one. Seibold portrays this only in terms of Vista, asking if Vista drove PC users to the Mac, and there’s no real causality there, obviously, because he’s asking the wrong question. If you look at the graph he presents, the uptick in Mac sales starts about when the normal life cycle of the first machines with XP pre-installed ran out, around late 2003 to early 2004. When people started looking for new machines, they started questioning their choice of operating system and many decided to get something that had actually been updated in the last four years.
  • The iPod. The iPod made Apple a household name and restored confidence in Apple. People loved their iPods and were willing to consider getting a computer made by the same company the next time the opportunity came up.
  • The Apple Store. The first stores opened in 2001, but the company didn’t really achieve saturation in the major urban centers until a couple of years later. Oh, right about the time Mac sales took off.

Is it harder to believe that neither one of these guys even discussed these factors or that the Macalope continues to be surprised by this kind of blinkered thinking?

To Seibold’s question about whether or not Apple switches Macs to its own chips, the Macalope suspects that certainly wouldn’t happen any time in the near future. Boot Camp is a nice feature and some users rely on it. But more importantly ramping up to that volume would not happen overnight. And does the company really want to tell Mac developers they have to recompile again?

From the perspective of a Mac user, however, other than having to go back to relying solely on emulation to run Windows on a Mac, why would they care?

  • Ari Blackthorne:

    Oh the stores definitely had a hand in it.

    I remember a post on Ars where the authorize so enthusiastically impressed which his brand-spanking new Android smartphone and how amazing it was compared to his iPhone.

    At the top of that article was a huge snapshot picture if the two side-by-side showing their home screens. Amazingly, even in a photo: the *hardware* of the Apple product was stunningly *superior*. The screen was brighter and sharper, the colors robust. The Android looks faded and washed-out – this in a *picture* of the two phones on a table physically sitting next to each other.

    The Apple stores allowed the public to not just see, but *feel* Apple hardware. And feel the quality. Then they played around with the interface of OS-X and all that.

    Whenever anyone asks me, I always say “hey, it’s not about the OS, or the interface or any of that. It’s about the hardware quality and the most important part: *user experience*“.

  • Personally, the intel chip for me was a safety net. I probably wouldn’t have purchased a PowerPC Macbook. Knowing I could use XP if I had to, seemed like a big deal.

    As it turns out, I didn’t need to run any windows software, so when I installed Snow Leopard I deleted the boot camp partition.

    I think other big thing about Macs is the build quality of the hardware. I agree completely with Ari, people use a Macbook or iMac in a store and they realize how sucky their Dell laptop is and that spending significantly more for a Mac is worth it.

  • jdack:

    I bought my first mac (white Macbook) in 2006. I’d used, and hated, OS 8 and OS 09 at work, but had never tried OSX.

    The fact that the macbook had the hardware and form factor I wanted (that level of thin, light, and widescreen was a lot spendier from other makers back then) was what really made the decision for me.

    The fact that, if it turned out I hated OSX, I could install XP or Linux or FreeBSD on it was just a bonus that made me feel safer and more confident in the purchase.

    As it turns out I loved OSX and I still use that 1st gen Macbook every single day. Even better with a memory upgrade and Leopard. No bootcamp here.

    • Lady Kaede:

      I can’t believe no one has pointed out the explosion of the Internet and the consequent explosion in viruses and malware of all kinds as a minor contributor to the switch. The safety of Mac as opposed to Windows may be primarily due to the much higher installed base of Windows machines, but whatever. I and the other mid-200’s switchers I know were fianlly pushed over the edge by the anti-virus software being as bad as the viruses it was theoretically supposed to remove and prevent. IE6 stank and the OSX platform was way more secure.

  • David Vallner:

    Arriviste data point: I got an MBP in late 2007, with a very firm intent to keep a gaming-only XP partition in Boot Camp, which I still boot into now and then. (Gaming from a VM is a nonstarter, and CrossOver Games was more miss than hit.) The whole security blanket wasn’t really much of a selling point for me.

    I like being able to deal with updates / Steam downloads from a VM. In a way OS X, with having an idiotproof and reliable way to boot a physical partition in a VM[1] also increases the value I get from the Boot Camp Windows. (Or, well, decreases annoyance.)

    Would I get another Mac if Apple dropped Intel? Probably. I just really, really, really don’t want to have to decide between the New Hotness and grabbing a then-discontinued Intel one from eBay just so I can play on the go.

  • PowerPC was stuck in a dead end, absolutely. (Writing this from my old 12″ PowerBook, admittedly, so definitely no Boot Camp for me.) The Intel switch was a precondition just like you say. Megahertz were really killing the Mac back then.

    Seibold has a point that the real growth in the Mac was in laptops. The numbers are patently obvious. I dare say that the wholesale switch from desktop to notebooks in the mainstream overall really played into Apple’s hands, seeing as the MacBooks were perfectly timed for it, and were a high profile advance.

    But you have the bigger picture in sight. Boot Camp and Parallels didn’t launch the Mac’s great comeback, still underway. It’s more just one leg of Apple’s overall platform in recent years. They’re taking over the joint.

  • Makepeace:

    Disappointed with the Macalope on this one. I was a Mac user from the days of the 128kb dual floppy original Macintosh but defected to the dark side in 2005.
    It was absolutely the switch to intel and the ability to run Windows on the side that allowed me to switch back, and even today the ability to run VMWare and Parallels (never Boot Camp) that allows me to stay.
    Go back to emulation of Intel (like the old VirtualPC software) and I will be unable to continue to use a Mac. For many others that is not the case, as after they switched they found their safety net unecessary.
    However I bet that the safety net of being able to run Windows in a virtual environment, in boot camp, or even as the primary operating system is responsible for about half the switchers.
    Second thing – Apple cant just switch chips as easily as some pundits seem to think. iPad A4 cannot be anything but an ARM based CPU because it runs all the iPhone apps without recompiling. Likewise they could not deploy that chip on any form of Mac without having to deploy a complex and probably unreliable Intel emulator (like Rosetta when they went to Intel) and they really dont want to do that again!

  • Dave:

    Apple developed a new processor in the A4, not a new instruction set. If Apple were going to switch Macs over, I have to believe it would use the x86 instruction set a la AMD—no recompilation necessary and Boot Camp would still work.

    I suppose the benefits that Jobs listed when he announced the switch were too mundane to consider? Faster speeds at lower power so you don’t need massive cooling systems. If Apple can do the same in house, why not?

  • This is way out of the Macalope’s area of expertise, but he heard the A4 used the ARM instruction set.

  • Richard Stacpoole:

    If Apple were to develop their own chips for theMac line why not buy AMD? Then they would also get ATI . They could buy AMD out of free cash flow without needing to touch their bank account.

    They then own a major chip designer and current leader in 3-D graphics in one nice bite size purchase.

  • @Richard Stacpoole
    If Apple was anyone else, I think they might do just that. But then there other similarly attractive offers. Like:
    – Buy Adobe. Kill Flash. Own the creative suite. Make Microsoft reliant on Apple for software the same way Apple is on Microsoft Office for Mac.
    – Buy Nvidia. Push OpenCL from the hardware side as well as software. Integrate their graphics expertise in PA Semi’s silicon. Own Tegra, with an option to kill.
    – Buy ARM. Make Nokia, HTC and every other iPhone and iPad competitor’s life that much more interesting.
    But Apple is Apple. They won’t do any of these. Each is far too messy, bringing in lots of varied talent and likely spilling a lot of it back outside the company.
    Apple makes small acquisitions. Strategic ones, certainly, but always small too. That way they can be integrated with comparative ease, and aimed squarely at the particular project Apple has purchased them for. PA Semi and Fingerworks being classic examples of this in action, much to Apple’s success.

  • @TJ:

    Here’s another big reason that was coincidental with the timing of moving to Intel.

    The *price* on the M-F’ing things has come way down.

    My first Mac was a Powerbook in 2004. With AppleCare, it cost about $3,000.

    Sure, I could have gotten an iBook in 2004 for less money, but it was so woefully under-featured that it felt like a complete waste of money.

    You can get a MacBook now for $1000.

    The price difference between a *decent* PC and a Mac is now negligible.

  • @TJ

    Intel boosted the hell out of the low end Macs. The G4 was stuck for donkeys years, and Apple was stuck on the G4 thanks to IBM’s arrogance about laptop chips. The iBook was doubly hobbled to keep the PowerBook looking good in comparison. But none of them could stack up against the Celeron / Pentium M on performance alone. Those were the ancestors to the Core series.

    As for price, the Mac Pro is costlier now than the base model Power Macs were. The Mac Mini went up in price when it moved from a G4 to Intel (didn’t stop me from getting one though, it was a much better computer). PowerPC chips were reportedly cheaper for Apple than Intel processors.

    Apple gained compatibility and an eternal equivalence on speed. Plus we never have to hear about delayed chips any more.

  • dannyo152:

    There are a lot of things Apple does right. Not having model numbers is one. Keeping the number of basic configurations per model to 3 is another.

    I do know firsthand that BootCamp / Efficient Virtualization matters. My brother, who switched to Macs a few years back primarily for Aperture wanted to stop taking his old Windows laptop and use his MBP on the road. He hears about Parallels, asks me about it, I help him set it up and he’s very happy. I do enough free-lance bookkeeping that QuickBooks on Windows in Parallels smooths many a situation. We paid full fare on our Windows licenses: one would think Redmond would think nicely of us as well.

    It doesn’t have to be one thing. I do think, though, having this versatility means when the issue of absolutely-must-run-Windows comes up, there’s a ready and capable solution, and that adds to the satisfaction numbers.

Leave a Comment