We’re All PC Users Now

by on April 6, 2006 · 14 comments

Apple’s Wednesday announcement of Boot Camp, a utility that allows users to run Windows on their Intel-based Macs, may be the final chapter in the decades-long commodification of the PC industry. “Wintel” PCs were commodified by the rise of “IBM clones” in the early 1980s, and the release of Pentium clones and LInux in the 1990s. By the mid-1990s, virtually every component in a Wintel PC was a commodity with vigorous intra-platform competition.

Apple began joining the commodity hardware party in earnest with the release of the iMac, which abandoned several Apple-only hardware components in favor of PC equivalents. Over the subsequent 8 years, they gradually phased out virtually all of their Mac-specific hardware, culminating in the adoption of Intel processors early this year. And this week they put to rest any notion that a Mac is anything but a glorified PC by giving users an easy way to install Windows on their Macs if they want to.

This is surprising because Steve Jobs is a control freak. When he rejoined Apple in 1997, he killed off the Macintosh clone program, which was beginning to allow third parties to build Mac-compatible computers. Five years ago, it would have been crazy-talk to predict that Jobs would soon transform Macs into glorified PCs with pretty cases.

What has happened, though, is that economies of scale have became such a powerful force that no one, even a closed-platform zealot like Jobs, could resist them. In the last few years, Intel and AMD together have sold more than ten times as many chips as did the PowerPC manufacturers who supplied Apple. As a result, they could afford to spend ten times as much on R&D. No amount of ingenuity or superior processor architecture can make up for such a lopsided funding advantage.

In addition, I suspect the iPod experience has changed Jobs’s perspective. It’s hard to fathom today, but the iPod was originally conceived as a loss-leader to sell more Macs. Only after it became obvious they had a huge hit on their hands did they release a version that would work with Windows. And it took them even longer to release a Windows version of iTunes. Today, the iPod and iTunes are arguably more important to Apple’s future than the Mac is. Tying the iPod to the Mac held back its potential for success. By making it as widely compatible as possible, Apple allowed it to achieve much greater success.

Jobs may have realized that Mac hardware and the Mac OS may be holding each other back as well. There may very well be a lot of customers who love Apple’s superb industrial design but need to run Windows to get work done. There might also be people who would like to try out the Mac OS but don’t want to drop several hundred dollars on a new computer. By de-coupling the two–allowing Windows to run on a Mac and (I hope soon) allowing Mac OS X to run on PCs–Apple allows each to survive on its merits. Perhaps Mac OS X will grab significant market share away from Microsoft. Or maybe Macs will steal market share from HP and Dell.

Either way, the bottom line is that network effects are an irresistible force in the computer industry. No matter how innovative your product might be, it’s not likely to succeed if it’s only used by a small cadre of technological elitists. Bill Gates figured this out in the 1980s, and it made him the richest man in the world. Perhaps Steve Jobs is beginning to figure it out as well. Better late than never.

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