Apple: Design and software, not hardware, distinguish Macs from Intel-based PCs

Cupertino (CA) - In an exclusive interview this afternoon with TG Daily, Apple Computer's senior director for desktops, Tom Boger, dispelled rumors that its new hardware partner, Intel, manufactured more components for the company than just the CPU and on-board chipset for his company's new iMacs and MacBook Pro models. Saying Apple is responsible for the architecture and assembly of the Macs' new hardware, as it has been for all prior models, Boger stated that the three factors that distinguish Apple's new systems from Core Duo-based PCs designed to run Windows, are form factor, operating system, and applications.

"We build the whole widget," Boger told us. "We don't take off-the-shelf parts, [and add to them] huge, major components from other companies, then throw our operating system on it. We build the whole widget from the ground up. We start with the industrial design, we do all the electrical engineering, every single aspect about a Mac has been designed by Apple."

Last week, Apple officially joined the historically huge list of companies building computers based on Intel processors. So a burgeoning issue among system builders has become whether it's possible for them to build their own Intel Core Duo-based computers, using a motherboard equipped with Intel's 945 chipset, and successfully install Mac OS X version 10.4.4 on the hard drive. Today, Boger told TG Daily, it can't happen. There are technical reasons why, having much to do with Apple's own hardware and software engineering, and Boger did confirm he knew what those reasons were. But he could not share them.

"I know they'll try," Boger said, referring to the system builders we said, during the interview, are likely to be interested in building their own Macs. "We don't support Mac OS X running on any other hardware than an Apple Macintosh. The specifics as to how, or what would prevent a user from a software standpoint running on anything besides a Mac, is just something that we're not publicly talking about."

But transcending the issue of whether Mac OS can be installed on an OEM box is the question of what makes these new Macintoshes so special in the first place. In years past, the fact that no other mass-produced computer used the same CPU as Macintosh (specifically, Power processors from IBM and Freescale Semiconductor) gave Apple material with which to tout their systems as unique. Now, the new Macs may be more powerful than previous editions, but they're less unique, at least on the inside.

This may not be a fact that Apple prefers to emphasize, which is probably why it refrained from adding the "Intel Inside" sticker, prominent on Windows PCs, to the outside of its new Intel-based models. Here is where Apple may be displaying a bit of ambivalence, similar to the time in 1997 when the company found itself installing Microsoft Internet Explorer as Macs' default Web browser. In a Web video produced for the New York Times Web site by reporter David Pogue, from the floor of last week's Macworld Expo, a Mac supporter and enthusiast, upon touching the new iMacs for the first time, said he appreciated Apple for not having joined the "Intel Inside" program, evidently because it made the transition easier for the Mac faithful.

We told Apple's Tom Boger about the Pogue video, and he sympathized with the user Pogue interviewed, stating with unreserved pride, "This is an Apple Macintosh. While we certainly do indicate very clearly that a key feature of this product is the Intel Core Duo processor," he said, "the specific 'Intel Inside' program is something that we're not participating in. It's very important to us that customers understand that this is the Mac that they know and love, and it just happens to have a new processor in it."

It certainly appears from our talk with Apple's Tom Boger today, the company is moving toward a public stance that de-emphasizes the internals of Macintosh, and focuses instead on those remaining aspects that keep it unique. "What distinguishes our products from other OEMs of Intel processors," stated Boger, "I put it into three broad categories: The first is, certainly, the unique industrial design of our products, both for the iMac and MacBook Pro. Clearly, the way we approach our all-in-one [iMac] desktop, by building everything in the back of the display, and how thin and sleek it is, and how quiet it is, is definitely a differentiator for our product." He added that the iMac packages a wide array of accessory hardware, including the iSight camera for videoconferencing, and both AirPort and Bluetooth WiFi connectivity.

Boger said that the inclusion of Core Duo became a facilitator for Apple's design plans, rather than the other way around: "We do really push the envelope with our industrial design," he told us. "The iMac is basically the thinnest desktop on the market, and to do that, we need chips that don't consume a lot of power. The Intel Core Duo is the perfect chip for that. We take the chip from Intel and we build our own platform around that...and it's uniquely an Apple Mac. It's not some off-the-shelf platform that you can buy from some other company."

Category 2, for Boger, is the operating system, which he describes as "something that our customers just love. [They] were looking for us to deliver all the great features that they know and love about Mac OS X on PowerPC-based Macs, and they're finding that the exact Mac OS X that they know and love is now running on Intel."

With the third category being the iLife suite of applications which is pre-installed on every Macintosh, suddenly it appears that Apple is becoming a software company after all. "I just think that our focus is Mac OS X," said Boger, "and that's what these systems are all about."

"The Mac isn't about just hardware," Boger advised us. "We have a long track record of tremendous innovation in hardware, and we'll continue to do that; but I also have to say that, if you just focus on hardware, it's missing the bigger picture. It's a combination of the hardware, of Mac OS X, and this unique collection of applications that give our customers an experience that they simply can't get anywhere else in the market."

In our talks with analysts in the past, we've heard their opinions that, for Apple to gain back lost market share for Macintosh, it will have to sell computers outside its existing market, which some have described as the company's "core audience." It's the legion of faithful fans who have already been sold on Macintosh in the past, few of whom are likely to have been converts from whole-hearted allegiance to Windows.

So Tom Boger's characterization of his company's operating system as something his customers know and love, is very telling indeed. It's a tacit admission that the new Macintosh customer is, at least in the minds of many at Apple, the old Macintosh's customer, and how the company manages to sway Windows users over to its re-invigorated platform is not exactly Job One.

Last week, IDC analyst David Daoud shared his opinion with us that, in order for Macintosh to thrive going forward, Apple will need to start radically innovating the Intel hardware, so that it becomes as unique and brand-defining for desktop and notebook computers as iPod has become for portable music players. To accomplish this, Daoud said, Apple will need to target at least one brand, and go after its feature set.

That is precisely what Apple does not want to do, Boger told us. "I think what tends to happen is, sometimes people come up with feature lists, and they say, 'Well, there's a feature on the Mac that I may also find on a PC,' when in reality, the experiences that a customer gets in those two features are radically different.

"You can get into a feature-by-feature comparison," Boger continued, "[of] what can be done on a Windows platform versus on a Mac, and you can draw the conclusion that there are a lot of similarities; but once you dig a little deeper on each feature, you'll find that the experience on the Mac - the integrated nature from one application to the next, especially in iLife - is something that's completely unique, and you just don't find in the Windows market."

Apple chief operating officer Tim Cook, in his company's first quarter results conference call late this afternoon, was explicitly asked by an analyst whether his company planned to go after market share points for Macintosh in the coming quarter. Expertly slipping past any reference to market share, Cook responded, "We're going to continue to make the best products on the face of the Earth. That's why we're here."

In his interview with us, Tom Boger declined to name any specific manufacturer - Dell, HP, Toshiba - as a competitor from which the Macintosh aims to acquire market share. "You can name the manufacturer in the Windows market," he said. "No one can offer the integrated experience in hardware, software, and applications that Apple can. So to the extent that we have customers switching to the Mac - which we do - they could come from any manufacturer."

Tom Boger's comments today will probably resonate well among the Macintosh faithful. But as far as making an appeal to Windows customers, whose lives and work the company's marketing continues to describe as "dull," Apple may yet have to make some inroads. For now, the company's adoption of Intel hardware should evidently not be construed as a bridge to a bigger market.

  • dalethepcman
    We don't take off-the-shelf parts, huge, major components from other companies

    So Apple Engineered the Intel V8 motherboard used in mac pro towers? So Apple Engineered the Intel CPU used in all macs? So Apple Engineered the AMD and NVidia video cards used in all macs?

    I'm pretty sure those are all huge, major components from other companies, taken off the shelf (or out of the box) and thrown into a mac.