the joys of hindsight

(Severe nerdery ahead; turn off now.)

John Gruber (no, not the arch-kook of late-1990s Usenet: that was John Grubor) has a great article up on his site talking about one of the great shibboleths of this industry.

In a nutshell, if you ask any geek, industry pundit, or even a random person on the street, “What did Apple do wrong in the 1980s?” they’ll pretty much all say the same thing, because it’s been repeated so many times that it’s become Received Wisdom:

“Apple should have licensed the Macintosh OS, or ported it to Intel hardware.”
Everyone “knows” this: if Apple had just ported the MacOS over to the PC AT and/or licensed it to all comers, they would be Microsoft now.

Now, Gruber goes into a great number of the reasons why this is nowhere near so “obvious” as it seems, and he’s entirely right about them. (I won’t rehash his points here: go read it yourself.) But to my mind, he’s forgotten the most obvious case against this argument: other people did this, and it didn’t work.

GEM. GEOS. DesqView. DesqView/X. Remember any of these names? Unless you’re a pretty hardcore geek, the odds are that you don’t, and that’s fine, because there’s no reason you should: in greater or lesser degree, they all did the same thing (put a vaguely Mac-like interface onto a standard desktop PC circa 1986), and they were all, in the long run, total failures. Digital Research, Berkely Softwarks and Quarterdeck Software, their respective makers, are all historical footnotes now: long-dead or absorbed into larger firms.

Heck, for at least a few years there, even Microsoft couldn’t sell a graphical interface on a PC to save their lives. Remember Windows 1.0? Windows 2.0? Windows 386? If you’re lucky, you don’t. If you had to use any of them, I’m sorry.

Seriously: if “an integrated GUI desktop on a commodity PC hardware platform” were really all that you had to create in order to make yourself into the Richest Company Ever, then by all rights Digital Research Inc should be a world-straddling colossus right now, and Microsoft a piddling vendor of second-tier office productivity software. But that’s now how it worked out, and people looking for glib explanations for Apple’s shifting fortunes would do well to look elsewhere.

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The reason that Apple couldn't have done a Mac on Intel in the '80s is that until the 386 there wasn't an intel processor that could effectively support a graphical user interface. The segmented memory model simply penalised programs that needed to operate on large blocks of memory too much to make it practical. GUIs on 8088, 8086, and 80286 were anemic even compared with the Mac, and the Mac's GUI was by no means a screamer.

And the 386 was still pretty anemic.

In the '90s, after the 486 and Pentium came out, the Intel platform actually started to look like a viable alternative. If Apple had moved then, back when the competition was Windows 3.1 and Windows 95, they might have been able to get somewhere. But by then the deep design flaws in MacOS were really starting to hurt. Microsoft was beginning to wean themselves of their poorly-advised emulation of Apple's cooperative API, and were getting some concurrency in the mix. On top of that, they were going through a processor switch from the 68000 to the Power PC... they *could* have gone to Intel at that point, but it wouldn't have been a sure thing by any means: too much software would have broken going from a big-endian to a little-endian world, particularly given the OS problems they were also faced with.

About the only time they really could have come out with an Intel-based product that was credible was after they picked up NeXT and switched to the UNIX-based Rhapsody. And it was far too late by then for them to "become Microsoft".

I don't think Desqview, or GEM really apply here. They were none of them producing a new operating system, they were all GUIs running on top of MS-DOS or a clone of it (ironic as it seems, CP/M-68K had become a clone of Microsoft's clone of CP/M by then). Apple's operating system, MacOS, was a completely different kind of animal, an OS built from the ground up around the GUI and GUI operations only. That turns out to have been a bit of a dead end, but it's got such different strengths and weaknesses that you really can't draw any conclusions from the fate of the '80s GUI shells on what Apple might have been able to do... IF IBM had picked the 68000 for the original PC instead of the 8088.