Mac Musings

Why Is Apple Ditching Netbook Support Now?

Daniel Knight - 2009.11.16 -

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There's been a minor uproar over Apple's Mac OS X 10.6.2 update. It seems that while it improved "Snow Leopard" on Macs, those using OS X on Atom-based computers discovered that the update turned their versions of OS X 10.6 into unusable ones.

And then there's the iPhone world, where those who hack ("jailbreak") the iPhone OS to allow the use of unauthorized (non App Store) software are finding themselves open to malware and loss of privacy.

Clever Hackers vs. Apple

While we all admire the clever gurus who figure out ways to circumvent Apple's designs - whether that's putting 10.6 on a netbook, jailbreaking an iPhone, or installing OS X 10.5 on unsupported Macs - the reality is that there are consequences. The next OS X update may not work on your netbook. Your iPhone may become so insecure that anyone can copy its files. And that old 350 MHz Power Mac G4 just might not make you happy with "Leopard".

Apple has a responsibility to its stockholders and to its customers. As a business, Apple has an obligation to turn a profit when conditions allow. As a retailer, it has an obligation to provide a good user experience to those who use its hardware and software in accordance with its terms of use.

Apple has no obligation to support any version of Mac OS X on any non-Apple hardware. Not only would that cut into profits, it's a violation of the End User License Agreement. As Psystar finally discovered, modifying a legitimate copy of OS X and then cloning it to non-Apple hardware that you sell to others violates the law. Hacking your own netbook is less of an issue and unlikely to end up in court, but you do so at your own risk.

That's what iPhone and "Hackintosh" users are learning. If you do something with your iPhone or copy of OS X that Apple doesn't approve of, its possible that the next version of the OS either won't install on your hardware or will not work properly on it.

You make your choice; you take your chances.

A Moral Choice

I have sympathy for those who are running OS X on non-Apple hardware because Apple doesn't make hardware that meets their needs. Need a netbook? Apple won't sell you one. Need a convertible notebook (one that can be used in notebook or tablet mode)? Apple doesn't make one. Need something more expandable than a Mac mini that doesn't cost over $2,000? Apple ignores that market as well.

I'm not going to argue that there's something morally wrong or unethical about hacking OS X or the iPhone OS for your personal use. Nor am I going to argue that Apple has done anything wrong by deliberately breaking OS X 10.6.2 on Atom-based computers. Any non-Apple hardware has always been officially unsupported hardware since the Developer Preview versions of OS X were distributed in 2005.

Protectionism vs. Trust

Apple has been dealing with copyright issues since the Apple II era, when dozens of companies created clones of its successful home computer. In fact, it was Apple's lawsuit against Franklin Computer over its clones that resulted in the ruling that software could be copyrighted within the US.

However, other companies worked around copyright law by reverse engineering the ROMs in the Apple II, a process whereby they developed software that would work like Apple's ROMs, but they did so without looking a the code within those ROMs. The end result is something that isn't exactly the same but functions similarly - a problem that later plagued IBM when it entered the realm of personal computing in 1981.

Apple has taken two different approaches to copyright protection over the years. On the one hand, it has avoided the serial numbers and authentication schemes of the Windows world. On the other, its one attempt to go that route, with the Lisa and its OS and apps, resulted in one of Apple's biggest computing failures.

Anyone who has used the Mac OS and Apple software knows how much easier it is to install and use them. Anyone who also used Windows or Microsoft Office also knows how much more challenging it can be to enter a horribly long activation code - and then deal with the added insult of the incredibly misnamed "Microsoft Advantage" that requires the software or OS to check in with Microsoft now and then to verify that it's authentic- which sometimes fails to validate legal software, flagging it as unauthorized.

Thank goodness Apple trusts us!

In a nutshell, that's probably the biggest difference between Apple and Microsoft. In general, Apple avoids the kind of activation schemes that Windows users take for granted. Apple makes the bulk of its money selling hardware, and its software is designed to work exclusively on that hardware (not counting the handful of Apple apps for Windows, such as iTunes and Safari).

Microsoft BASIC was the first widely pirated software, and Microsoft's response has to protect its intellectual property through increasingly draconian measures - registration codes, product activation, Microsoft Advantage, and so on. Why? Because Microsoft doesn't make money selling computers; it's almost exclusively a software company (yes, there are mice, keyboards, and Zune).

Anyhow, it's Apple's trust that makes it easy for the Hackintosh community to thrive. You don't have to register your new installation of OS X, although Apple strongly encourages is with your initial startup. You can easily install your copy of the Mac OS on multiple computers without Apple's knowledge, and this has been true for as long as there have been Macs. Apple trusts you to know when you should buy extra copies or a 5-user family license.

Why Now?

While Apple does pocket some money for every copy of OS X sold, it makes a lot more from selling a new Mac than from selling the OS. There is little benefit to Apple from having OS X running on your clone - but as long as there is no strong disadvantage to Apple, there has also been no strong reason to deliberately block certain types of hardware.

Which raises the question, "Why is Apple cutting out netbooks at this time?" Or, more precisely, "How does it benefit Apple to eliminate netbook support in November 2009?"

One possible reason is an uptick in sales of Mac OS X 10.6 ending up on non-Apple hardware. At $29, you can bet Apple isn't making much from each copy of Snow Leopard sold, and if Apple perceives that netbooks are cutting into MacBook sales, it's a plausible argument for blocking Atom CPU support, since that's the chip found in the vast majority of netbooks.

A more likely reason is that Apple needs to create a hole in the market for a new product, the widely anticipated Apple Tablet, which may be a Mac OS X device, an iPhone OS device, or more than one platform using each OS. If Apple is planning to launch a new computer with tablet capabilities, it will almost certainly be in direct competition with the netbook market.

I don't know Apple's plans, but I have my hopes. While a slate is okay, I think a convertible model that functions in both slate and notebook modes is much more practical. There have been some clever designs in the PC world with dual-action hinges that let you turn a laptop into a slate, and there have been some designs that allow the display to fold so far that it is flush with the laptop's base. (And then there's the intriguing litl webbook, which works as a notebook or in easel format.)

My vote would be for a small Mac OS X notebook where the touchscreen can open so far that it turns into a slate, perhaps with an easel mode as well for watching videos, etc. (clever idea, litl!). Add to that an iPhone OS slate with a stylus, and Apple could have two machines taking on the netbook market.

That's my best guess: Apple has blocked the Atom chip in 10.6.2 to pave the way for its next entries in the personal computing space.

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Dan Knight has been using Macs since 1986, sold Macs for several years, supported them for many more years, and has been publishing Low End Mac since April 1997. If you find Dan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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