A Brief Moment in Operating System History

If you can remember to sometime in the dark ages of personal computing the Commodore 64 was by many consumers the best computer per dollar. It was a keyboard that plugged into a TV or monitor with all the computer hidden under the keys. When it came time to upgrade the operating system (OS), you simply bought another computer. This practice and hard wiring the OS into the machine gave way to software based OS most notable Windows 95 and Macintosh Operating System. The fundamental difference between the two systems was the central processing unit (CPU) Windows using an Intel chip and Mac using a Motorola chip. The physical design of the chips required drastically different programming approaches making Windows and Apple software incompatible. 

Winds of Change

Apple debuted its  G5 microprocessor, it was the most advanced CPU on the market.  The G5 had something in common with the H1 Hummer--it was a power hog. It could not be practically be adapted to a battery environment.  The CEO of Apple, Steve Jobs, made a decision to move to Intel based computing removing the fundamental obstacle between the Windows and Mac software systems. 

Behind the Scenes

The Linux OS has been in the background of the OS Wars, quietly running on both CPUs in what Linux users called distributions. Linux was developed as an inexpensive alternative to a Unix platform and still is. What distinguished Linux from its competitors was the base kernel--the chunk of code that made it a good substitute for Unix was open source. Anyone that wanted to customize the kernel for commercial  or other use had to make the base kernel available to the end user under the same open license.  Despite being a generally free OS that could be installed on Intel or Motorola based hardware, it did not gain the same market share ostensibly for technical reasons--people who wanted Linux also wanted to customize their operating system. 

Planning for the Future

In a magazine article, Steve Jobs compared the clock speeds of the G5  and the Intel chip over power and showed the economy of processing power like the fuel economy of a car. Even with the advantage of newer technology, the Intel Core 2 Duo  2.0 GHz chip set performed power-wise five time more efficiently for the same processing power. 

  • Intel chip:  0.0439 watts/MHz 
  • G5  chip: 0.225 watts/MHz 

The consumer perspective of choosing between a  car with 10/MPG and 50/MPG made the switch crystal clear. Given the costs associated with high performance computing this represents a breakthrough in processing power capped by energy limitations. 

Power consumption in watts/ Heat production in BTU/h

Power Consumption and Heat Generation ComparisonCredit: support.apple.com knowledge base : HT3559 and TA24037Credit: support.apple.com knowledge base : HT3559 and TA24037

Virginia Tech - G5 SuperCluster

2006: 3rd Super Computer in the world.

Armies Join Sides

Once Apple transitioned to an Intel CPU, the hardware limitations keeping PC and Mac from operating on the same machine no longer existed. Out of the box, Intel-based Mac's came with Boot Camp software that allowed users to dual-boot and run  Windows natively. Other software tools came out that enabled virtual operating systems to run simultaneously--allowing Mac and PC to share the same information. The latest incarnation of Microsoft's OS Vista and Windows 7  moved to a file based image and added virtual hard drives incorporating Virtual PC technology making an OS nothing more than  a file on a hard drive. 

I watch TV

What are we fighting over?

Based on TV advertisements, you might believe Apple and Microsoft were locked in combat more than ever. What is clear about corporate goals is the more users you have the more revenue you can generate. Apple products run on hardware that is unmistakably Apple while Microsoft products can run on almost any hardware that meets minimum system specs.  Therein lies the basis for a buying decision. Many years ago, when DOS was the OS that ran until you did something else, I was taught by a Polish computer scientist that you choose a computer because it runs the software you need. In several industries such as publishing a Mac is the computer of choice while geospatial processing is the world of the PC.  In a world where both OS's can work side-by-side, how do you make a decision?

You don't eat square buns

If a fast food restaurant on one corner used square hamburger buns and the one across the street used round ones they could never share buns if one ran out. If you think bun sharing between restaurants doesn't happen you might want to look into it. The same logic works for software. If a vendor can write software that works on multiple platforms it is good business. Mac and PC working together is a good thing because it merges the customer base. But is Mac and PC working together a good thing for you ? Consider some pros and cons of each:


PC Pros

  • Inexpensive hardware and OS software available
  • Compatible software widely available 
  • Extensive investments already made by industry

PC Cons

  • No consistency inside the boxes e.g. HP and Dell use different network cards
  • Driver incompatibility may allow a device to work on one machine and not on another
  • Microsoft OS costs are not competitive in less developed countries
  • Windows tends to be a package solution (client and server) requiring a committment
  • Warranties vary

Mac Pros

  • It just works--Apple approved software will run on Apple computers
  • Can run other virtual OS 
  • Excellent hardware warranty (3 y bumper to bumper coverage for $160-$350)
  • Longevity

Mac Cons

  • Up front costs higher 
  • Support limited to Apple stores and mail order
  • You buy the hardware and software as a package


This is a wrap

Before Windows 7 you could argue OS X was holistically a better system than XP or Vista and it still may be. However, from a practical perspective it is responsive and feature rich without requiring a hefty investment. I run PC and Mac together and it is the best of both worlds, but there are business domains that cannot accommodate such combinations and sectors that absolutely need only one of the two. Now have a real choice to make, chose the one that works for you.