Sunday, October 02, 2005

Do the Beeb have technical consultants?

Now, I do actually know quite a bit about Apple computers: I've been using them for over a decade, and I've been servicing and programming on them for some time as well. So, why don't the Beeb call me up when they decide to write an article on Apple?
Apple is also changing its chip supplier to Intel. Most say this is because their chips run cooler, which is better for high-end laptops.

The change will also have implications for Mac's operating system OSX - designed to run on Macs alone - and which supports software like Final Cut Pro.

The new Intel versions of OSX have, however, already been hacked to work on non-Apple computers.

Well, in that famous phrase, up to a point, Lord Copper. The underlying basis of Mac OS X is an implementation of a UNIX called FreeBSD. Apple has, since about 2000, been adding to the system—and, indeed, inviting submissions—and has freely published the UNIX core, the Open Source system, on its website. You can go and download it now, if you like.

Being a UNIX core, it was originally intended to run on any system, as long as it was compiled for that chipset. So, in order to run the Darwin core on your PC, all you need is a compiler programme for the Intel chipset (and a bit more knowledge than I have to put it together).

But this is not Mac OS X: what makes Mac OS X is, essentially, the windows manager and applications running on top of the core (kernal). And to emulate this, you have to have the code for the windows manager ("Aqua"), applications and, most importantly, the APIs (or, more recently, the KPIs) that allow the various applications that allow Mac OS applications to work with the kernal. Apple does not publish these APIs, nor does it publish the Aqua code, nor any code except that which is Open Source and directly related to work done on Darwin.

As Steve Jobs demonstrated earlier in the year, Apple has been running Mac OS X on Intel machines since its inception. It is true that there are hackers working on reverse engineering the system so that it will work on ordinary Wintel machines but, personally, I think that they have a long way to go: if only because of the multitude of configurations of PC boxes out there.

And the real crux is that "new Intel versions of OSX have, however, already been hacked to work on non-Apple computers" is incorrect. They have not. Why?

In order to stop this, Apple have integrated, into the new system, mandatory support for a TPM (Trusted Performance Module). This is a piece of hardware attached to the motherboard (or even chip board) that stops any system, without the necessary protocols built in, running on that machine. So this is to stop people running the Mac OS X on ordinary WinTel boxes. Furthermore, it makes it extremely difficult to hack the system to run on a machine without the TP module on the motherboard. For further information and opinion on this, please see John Gruber's article at Daring Fireball.

Why are they doing this? Is it simply Apple's notorious bloody-mindedness? Apple are doing it because they make their money from hardware. All those great Apple apps—iPhoto, iTunes, Safari, iMovie, iDVD—all cost money to develop and yet are given away free: why? They have all, even iTunes for PC, been developed in order to get people to buy Apple hardware, because that's where the margins are. Steve Jobs has admitted that even the Apple iTunes Music Store makes little or no profit: it is there to encourage people to buy iPods.
It was so easy that it has got some people wondering whether Apple is secretly planning to make OSX common currency for PCs as well, and challenge Microsoft's operating system Windows.

Or so says the latest conspiracy theory, according to Chris Phin. "The way the story runs from there is that you have a system that's built to run on Intel that's easy to crack, so it's been cracked.

"So people will buy very cheap IBM PCs from Dell and other manufacturers like them, that are much less expensive than Apple's own kit. They will then run the operating system on that because Mac OSX is a fabulous operating system to use.

"Then, two or three years down the line, Apple will turn round and officially start selling Mac OSX for Intel boxes. And, of course, everyone who is then using it already will upgrade."

Really? Well, since they haven't got a fully functioning Mac OS running on Intel boxes yet, it obviously hasn't been that easy. And now, according to Chris Phin, Apple hopes that people will stop buying its hardware (high margins) and, instead, purchase upgrades to its Mac OS X system (low margins). I find this very hard to believe, not least because Apple—who must be aware, since they do not use registration numbers for their OS, that most people just copy all of their system from a disk that a mate bought—cannot actually make much money from system upgrades.

The other thing about Apple is their "It just works" tag. The reason that Apple systems work so well, is that Apple choose and test all of the components themselves. This means that all of the components in an Apple machine are known to work perfectly (within reason) with the operating system. It's reputation relies more on this than on the "cool" factor.
Like most conspiracy theories, this one is fed by secrecy. Apple is as concerned about its own image as it is about how its own products look.

One of the appeals of those products is that they feel exclusive. The danger for Apple in targeting the mass market is devaluing this brand. When you trade in cool, how long before cool becomes commonplace?

Balls. Apple Macs were always cool, even when they were first starting out and Jobs's vision was to have a Mac in every household. The idea was that they should be popular and cool. Things can still be cool and not be exclusive. Apple has sold some 20 million iPods, and they are still cool; sure, they have their detractors (mainly over the price) but nevertheless, everybody still wants one.

I believe that the value in the new Intel Apples will be that you will be able to run Windows on them. You will no longer have to become a "switcher", you can become a "gradual transitioner"; it is not as snappy, but it is more attractive. See here for an expansion of this (although, please note that some security issues for Mac OS X have surfaced, all holes are believed to be currently plugged).

So, my question is: do the BBC have anyone with any knowledge who could write authoritively on the subject of computers?

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