Some people think that, despite what Apple Computer Inc says, Mac OS could be adapted to run on the PowerPC Reference Platform in less than a year. The news that Mac OS will only be licensed to run on specialist, non-PReP hardware is a blow to the industry. This morning I received some electronic mail […]
Some people think that, despite what Apple Computer Inc says, Mac OS could be adapted to run on the PowerPC Reference Platform in less than a year. The news that Mac OS will only be licensed to run on specialist, non-PReP hardware is a blow to the industry. This morning I received some electronic mail from a reader (let’s call him Bob) who wanted to know what the big deal was with Apple and the PowerPC Reference Platform. He had read the last PowerFlash where we said it would be a problem if Apple did not adapt Mac OS to work with PReP vendors and wrote: I am continually confused by why this is portrayed as a crucial factor. Bob is, we had better say, a knowledgable chap, deeply involved in the PowerPC world, on the PReP side. There are several reasons why he, and the rest of the industry, should be concerned. But first, let’s get one thing clear: PowerPC News doesn’t think it matters an iota whether Apple’s own machines are PReP-compliant or not. Apple has good business, economic and technical reasons for sticking with its own design. As long as it adopts the PCI bus and OpenBoot, it will benefit from common adaptor-board hardware support. The only other thing PReP could offer Apple would be the ability quickly to get Windows NT and so forth running on its machines, which is probably not a priority at the moment. On the other had, we think that it is important for Apple to license Mac OS to other personal computer manufacturers for one simple reason – it is the only desktop operating system for the PowerPC that is (a) shipping and (b) successful enough to excite personal computer manufacturers into building clones. That was the consensus when we polled a selection of industry analysts in July. When the Power Personals were discussed in the early days users repeatedly asked IBM one question: Will I be able to run Macintosh software on it?
The answer then, and the answer now, is No. The news that Apple planned an aggressive licensing campaign to increase market share was welcomed, but the news that it would be limited to non-PReP hardware was not. We have no doubt that the Mac clone market will be successful one, and it will probably fulfill Apple’s relatively modest stated requirements for an increase in market share. However, it will if anything divert manufacturers’ interest from building PReP machines. Some might build both, but most given a choice of what to do with their research and development dollars will probably opt for the Mac. There is an interesting get-out clause, in that manufacturers may opt to build a Mac-architecture/PReP hybrid (call it PReP+), capable of running both types of operating system, which could become a unified standard. We’ll discuss that later. But why hasn’t Apple committed to adapting Mac OS to PReP? the company’s answer to this one is simple – it is a technical problem. Open up an Apple Mac and you will see it is crammed with custom chips, it uses unconventional video and it uses the proprietary NuBus and ADB (Apple Desktop Bus) for expansion boards and keyboard connection. It loves SCSI drives. Moreover, the Macintosh hardware and system software form a closer synergy than any other personal computer in the industry – it is the Macintosh’s strength. Don Strickland, who heads up Apple’s licensing division, says quite simply: Just to move people off ADB would be horrendous. But is it really that difficult? Apple itself has already solved the 68000-to-PowerPC processor conversion and it is already working on its own PCI-based machines. In fact, we assume that the Mac licensees will be building PCI, rather than Nubus boxes. That leaves video, keyboard buses, networking, disk drives and probably a few other horrors to overcome.
By Chris Rose
However we reckon that a good enough port – as good as Macintosh Application Environment on Solaris – should be possible in a reasonable time. Glen Miranker, Technical Director at PowerPC Systems house FirePower (formerly Powerhouse) is more forthright: These assertions by Apple are absolutely a technical smokescreen he s
ays. If Apple is willing to give me an unrestricted Mac OS licence, as described by Spindler in the Wall Street Journal; [good] pricing; and the usual and customary technical support, I will be more than willing to demonstrate it running on a machine in nine months. Miranker has around a dozen developers, lest you think he has a team of thousands hanging around in the back room. It wouldn’t be an ultra-elegant port, he admits, and the Menlo Park, California-based manufacturer would probably have to put a software-controlled disk drive in its machine, but it would be, he says: a good working version. Certainly good enough to attract software developers and let users run the occasional Mac program, a la SoftWindows. Others are not quite so sure. Over at Power Micro Research Inc, another PowerPC system house based in Austin, Texas, opinion is split. Jim Mott, software architect with the company, reckons nine months sounds about right: It should be running in three to four months, with the rest of the time spent turning it into something you can sell. He points out that many of the nasty hardware dependency issues have already been faced with the Macintosh Application Services port to AIX – and if they can do it once… The company’s resident Macintosh expert, Andrew Donoho, is significantly more down-beat. Donoho has a history of building both software and Macintosh add-on hardware. He points out the messy parts such as the fundamentally different way that Mac video and VGA-type adaptors work, along with the difficulties that the close relationship between Sound Manager and system hardware may present. Given that caveat, it is our guess – and guess it has to be, since we are not engineers – that a well appointed (with SCSI and the right video adaptor) PReP machine could ship running Mac OS towards the autumn of 1995. Not long, in fact, after Apple says we should expect the straight clones. There are good reasons for Apple to be wary of a PReP clone. You can see the headlines now, can’t you, as users find that Mac OS doesn’t quite work properly on their machine?
Crippling for Apple
Small hardware-software incompatibilities could make using Mac OS nearly as nasty as using… Windows, for example. And the technical support issues could become crippling for Apple. But perhaps the biggest factor is Apple’s fear of losing control of its operating system. Porting to PReP would entail the scary step of committing Mac OS to disk, rather than keeping it safely tucked inside a ROM. Historically, people have argued that the Mac hardware is actually a sophisticated dongle designed to prevent software copying. Porting to PReP would strike at the heart of this policy. Apple would argue that this is pretty paranoid stuff: Strickland says that Apple is still working with IBM to define a new common platform more suitable for Mac OS. Certainly, the intial beta of PReP was devised with little or no input from Apple and the Mac manufacturer was right to feel aggrieved when it was presented as a virtual fait accompli. However, insiders to the PReP negotiation say that since then, Apple has been offered a number of concessions which would have eased porting, but turned them down. For those who like their hypotheses really paranoid, we offer this thought. Perhaps Apple is deliberately dragging its feet on PReP, in order to set up the Macintosh RISC architecture as an alternative platform. On the face of it, this sounds stupid, but for a passing comment by Strickland, to the effect that it would be easier to port Windows NT or Solaris to the Macintosh than Mac OS to PReP. Strickland agrees that the kind of schism that this might cause in the PowerPC community would be very unpleasant (imagine having Windows NT for PReP/PowerPC and Windows NT for Mac/PowerPC) and says that this is one reason he hopes that a common platform can still be agreed upon. Certainly Apple’s bargaining hand will be immeasurably strengthened if the Mac clone business becomes popular, even more so if people begin to implement other operating systems for the machines.
The phrase ‘de facto standard’ springs to mind. No matter what happens, Apple’s latest announcements have thrown the topic of PReP compliance centre stage once more. Chris Rose edits PowerPC News: mail add(AT)power.globalnews.com