The Ol’ Drivers Excuse

16 Comments

The release of Boot Camp has ignited a flurry of comment both from within and without the Mac web, and Robert X Cringely has gone as far as to dredge up that old hypothesis about Apple allowing Mac OS X to run on commodity Dell or HP boxen. The (non-)story made it to Slashdot, with a rebuttal whose featuring in the summary amounted to little more than a shameless plug for the author’s blog.

This rebuttal, by one Frank Boosman, centres its argument on drivers, a perennial favourite of those who seek to explain why Mac OS X-on-a-Dell will never happen.

The argument runs that Mac OS X is better because Apple control both the hardware and software, and that Microsoft have such a hard time with Windows because they have to support such a dizzying array of differing hardware configurations. Were Microsoft to control the hardware as well, the Windows experience would be as blissful as is Mac OS X. Boosman sums it up with this glorious line:

…were Apple to ship OS X for any old PC, its ease of use would drop dramatically…

This makes no sense. No sense at all.

Microsoft write very few drivers. That task is, of course, the responsibility of the companies who design and manufacture the hardware itself – ATI, Creative, nVIDIA, Intel, etc. In the Windows driver arena, Microsoft’s task is to act as something vaguely resembling a mediator, making sure that all these bits get along. I’ll grant that that is not easy, but it is something at which they have got a lot better with Windows 2000 and XP. Both operating systems’ kernels are, truth be told, now pretty stable.

Instead, the real issues with Windows lie elsewhere – its pisspoor attitude to security and the total absence of any thought with regard to user-friendly interfaces (the Windows XP Start menu, the right mouse button, dizzying numbers of toolbars, multi-row tabs, poor keyboard shortcut support – witness the lack of a shortcut key for something as elementary as creating a folder in Explorer, etc.) spring immediately to mind, but there are other vectors of attack if one wanted to mount a thorough critique. But make no mistake – these days, drivers have very little, if anything, to do with it.

No, were Apple to make Mac OS X available to Dell, HP, Sony et al – and it is presumably something that no OEM would scoff at, given its evident superiority – hardware manufacturers would soon be making Mac OS X drivers for their hardware. It would be in their interests, after all. The drivers obstacle could be and would be quickly overcome. And were it being bundled, responsibility for support would rest with the OEMs.

Of course, none of this is to suggest that Apple will be making a release of Mac OS X available for PCs anytime soon. To do so would probably have at least some negative effect on their hardware sales (if not quite the cannibalisation that many predict), and the company is not yet in a position to really take on Microsoft in a war for operating system dominance.

And some of us are quite happy with the diminutive size of the Mac-using coterie. I hope it stays that way for at least a little while. :)

16 Comments

Mantiz

Ok, i am a windows user, i’ve used mac for as long as i use windows.
It’s not about what’s “better”, it’s about what better suits your personal needs. Some people find two or more buttons on a mouse better/easier, imagine a mac mouse with a wheel on it, for me it would be great, for others confusing.

About the driver thing, windows comes with drivers for hardware that was out at the time windows came out, it sucks, but i have never had problems finding good drivers for my hardware from their manufacturers.
The dock, i really like it, that’s why i use it with my windows pc, there are programs that can simulate the dock, it’s a good idea but not only for mac’s.

Gareth Potter says: “the taskbar is pretty poor too, especially in Windows XP, where it hides things by grouping” — Well if you have searched a bit and didn’t dismiss it right away you would see that that is an option that you can actually turn on and off like many of the options in windows, unlike mac osX.
Also: “This is a guess, but I’m guessing that for Half Life 2, the launch process will go something like: Start…All Programs…Valve Software…Half Life 2…Run Half Life 2” — OR it can go through “quick launch” a nice little thing on the taskbar resembles a much less cpu consuming “dock”.

“Your “Joe Consumer” doesn’t really matter in all this. He wasn’t going to buy an Apple anyway, so, in fact, Apple would end up getting more money from him (through an operating system licence) than they would have otherwise.”—So i-life, i-tunes, i-movie etc. are all programs designed for the hard core editor who decided it was time for a break from after effects and final cut? Come on.

Again this is me, i like customizing my pc i like taking my graphics card or CPU out and putting in a new one without having to wait 2months for mac to send it to Germany and put in a new one for me.
I use mac’s all the time at work and i like them a lot, performance is as good and sometimes better than pc’s, but they are realy expensive and a real b* when it comes to customizing so my personal choice is pc.
If there is going to be an OSX version that you can put on pc’s with good hardware support, who knows, maybe everyone will switch, maybe mac and microsh* are going to compete even harder and mess it all up. But i just don’t see Macintosh giving up their hardware market to sell some more OSX DVD’s.

Gareth Potter

Eobet,

You’re new to the Mac, so I will forgive you, but I think that you will in time come to understand what is wrong with right-clicking; so too with the Dock. I switched from Windows in late 2002, and have not really looked back.

The basic problem with right-clicking is that to a large number of users, the presence of two buttons on the mouse is confusing. Tell them to click and they will ask, “Which button?” To you it is obvious – you mean the left mouse button – but that is only something you learn with time, and the whole point is to make things easier from the word go. If there is only one mouse button, there is no question.

There is also the issue of non-obviousness. This happens all the time in Windows and programmes that run on it. The problem is that because PCs have a right mouse button, developers use that as an excuse, as it were, to bury a lot of functionality in context menus. This is bad because it is not at all discoverable for the first-time user. On Mac OS X, you can right-click items in the Finder, but you can also access the same functionality from the file menu or, far more importantly, the Action button on the toolbar. This is what is called ‘exposing functionality’, and it is very important for making things easier for first-time users.

As to the start menu, the same issue applies. A default Mac OS X installation presents you with the Dock at the bottom ready to rock ‘n’ roll. Icons for your programmes are right there – you just click to get going. With Windows, especially Windows XP, it is far less obvious – this is probably one of the reasons Microsoft took to automatically opening the Start menu after a first time install.

As to why the design is completely braindead (and this applies to all versions of the Start menu, although Windows XP’s is particularly poor), it is so incredibly difficult to get access to your software (which after all is the damn thing’s very purpose), and it is filled with unnecessary clutter. This is a guess, but I’m guessing that for Half Life 2, the launch process will go something like:

Start…All Programs…Valve Software…Half Life 2…Run Half Life 2

And you have to pick that out from a sea of menus perhaps three columns deep if you have a sizeable amount of software installed, as well as myriad links to uninstallers, configuration utilities, and a whole load of other crap that just gets in the way. In truth, I used to have only 6 or 7 folders in my Start menu, but that is only because I used to spend a lot of time tidying things up. Basically, to keep it lean, it requires an awful lot of maintenance work.

I didn’t actually make any comment about the taskbar in my original post, but the taskbar is pretty poor too, especially in Windows XP, where it hides things by grouping – the good thing about the original taskbar was that you could quickly get to different windows with, well, just a click. It also has this frustrating tendency not to always accurately reflect the windows that are actually currently on screen, with the result that I have had to switch to different programmes using Alt Tab because they aren’t in the taskbar. That even the taskbar doesn’t work reliably 100% of the time is testament to just how bad the coders at Microsoft can be.

I’m not sure what you mean when you say that in OS X, “everything’s moving around all the time“. I presume this is a reference to the magnification thing on the Dock, an option which you had to switch on! Remember that it doesn’t do that by default, and most users, after playing with the eye candy for a short while, switch it off and return to a more practical setting. (For what it’s worth, however, I rather like it and have no issues clicking the correct icon, but I know that many users do have trouble, so…)

And obviously I can’t really respond to blanket dismissals like “the Dock is a travesty” – I’d only say that it’s a hell of a lot better as a programme launcher than the Start menu.

G

eobet

You complain about the Start menu and right-click??? The Start menu and taskbar (especially the taskbar) are one of Microsoft’s best inventions and from a usability standpoint, they’re brilliant! Instant information (at the same place) all the time. The Dock is a travesty and even Exposé needs to be improved (with grouping windows from the same program together and also labelling each window with an icon of that application). I like OS X a lot now that I got a Macbook, but don’t try to clank down on the Start menu and taskbar, because you’ll only look silly. Windows may look boring and static, but at least you know where everything is (except if you’re using Office). It’s lucky that OS X looks nice, because since everything’s moving around all the time you spend a lot of time searching for stuff.

DeMYSTiFieD

What makes the two operating systems different is the demographic their manufacturers are catering to.

Microsoft is trying to satisfy a menagerie, while Apple entertains a niche audience. Consequently, the former is prone to generalize while the latter tends to specialize.

For this reason, Apple’s OS will be as unpalatable to the masses as Microsoft’s OS will be to a niche.

George

Nick and Gareth-

Yeah, but there’s something else going on with me (and maybe with you). It’s a bit like my wife. We’ve been married 31 years, and I could list a lot of reasons why I’m glad she’s my wife and why I prefer her to Sally and Fifi and Becky — but there’s something else going on. Chemistry? Love? Emotion? I’m not sure I can put my finger on it, but I know what it feels like!

Macs are kinda that way to me. And it’s been that way since 1984 (yep, an early adopter!). I use Sun SparcStations, Linux boxes, PCs, etc., but Macs have been my passion for over 20 years. The original, the Fat Mac, the SE, the II,….and now a PowerBook. I’m still hopelessly in love.

May it always be so!

George

Gareth Potter

Nick,

I agree wholeheartedly that Mac hardware is just “nicer” and makes me more productive, and I, like you, say that with a more lengthy experience in the PC world. It definitely contributes to a better overall experience.

But I don’t think it relates to drivers. Certainly the touch and feel of your PowerBook trackpad doesn’t relate to the driver software. :P As I have acknowledged above, there are plenty of bad drivers, but Windows most certainly does not have a monopoly on bad driver software – there is second rate stuff for the Mac too. Again, I speak from experience and, er, D-Link, I’m looking at you in particular.

But hardware manufacturers can write good drivers. Some do so for the Mac, and some do for Windows. I will allow that by releasing OS X for x86, there would certainly come the risk that some people would not enjoy the same functionality as do real Mac users, but I don’t think it need be that bad.

It would, however, take away the magic, and that, as I seem to remember lamenting on or before the release of the Mac mini, is a far greater crime.

In any case, I take with a pinch of salt the thoughts of someone (Michel) who comes up with a corker like this:

the industry doesn’t need os X on pc. there are already linux if windows is too bad for you. there are _no_ market for os X on PC. even if os X is blue and nice.

Yeah, right.

NickS

Michel makes a good point here.

It’s a solid combination of both the hardware and the software that make Apple’s ‘experience’ what it is to so many people. It holds true for me at least.

The touch and feel of the powerbook trackpad as opposed to the dell version I’m using right now at the office. The solid and beautiful display that isn’t exactly flexible, like the dell I’m on now. I could go on and on.

I’ve used a PC longer than I’ve been using a mac – and I’m so much more efficient and comfortable on my mac – and it’s truly because of the hardware and OS TOGETHER.

michel

drivers are one big reason why windows is so crap and why it’s impossible to do a perfect integration between hardware and software

you _CANNOT_ expect every manufacturers to do good drivers and it’s one of the problem of windows

with the macintosh, apple is doing mostly all common device to remove the pain.

in macinotsh, many phones are not managed
many web camera are not compatible

you don’t have to forget the important issue drivers and control of hardware is

why mac os X is able to do sleep and wake in a mere seconds ? because of hardware

you will losse many things you seem to believe normal with os x on common PC and apple will not be able to do something

you seem to believe people will simply buy good pc with good support and understand it’s not the fault of os X. I will simply say : no, people will only see os X is not better than windows and will simply reject it.

OS X IS NOT why people buy Macintosh, Macintosh hardware is NOT why people buy Mac
People buy Macintosh for BOTH os X and the apple’s controlled hardware : they buy the Experience. they buy the synergy , they buy the combinaison. they buy both, even if they don’t know, it’s both osx and apple’s hardware together which gives that “macintosh feeling” and why apple is known for.

forget linux or bsd, you cannot simply take and use their drivers in os X. Else; it would be years some device will be available on os X or than linux on powerpc will use os X nvidia drivers

freebsd , linux and os x are _TRULY_ different beasts.

Noone here says it’s the fault of the computer’s manufacturers is someone use a crappy drivers of neither it’s the fault of apple if os X is put on a crappy PC
but, people buying os X will simply see os X is not what they expect

os X with bad drivers will simply sucks, as windows, maybe worse (you cannot write a good os x drivers simply because you know how to write good windows drivers, you need to learn, it’s time consuming).

please, don’t forget, IT’s A WORK. it’s TECHNICAL, it needs money, it needs commitment, it’s NOT EASY.

and simply, I don’t fathom that as possible.

one last thing :
the industry doesn’t need os X on pc. there are already linux if windows is too bad for you. there are _no_ market for os X on PC. even if os X is blue and nice.

Gareth Potter

Wilson,

Don’t confuse Mac OS X, FreeBSD and Linux. They are all very different beasts. It almost goes without saying that Linux’s driver architecture and FreeBSD’s are totally different and therefore incompatible, but the mistaken belief that Mac OS X could just borrow “drivers” from FreeBSD is more complicated, because it contains a thread of truth.

The fact is that whilst there are bits of FreeBSD in Mac OS X, these are only bits. The kernel is Mach, and the driver interface is known as IOKit, something totally exclusive to Mac OS X.

So no, the same “compatible” drivers won’t work on OS X.

G

Jeffrey

The driver issue is dumb to say the least. all of the problems it seems like people have with driver issues exist on OSX too. People always complain about driver issues and Windows when they add NEW HARDWARE. Not hardware that came with the computer. Hell nowadays you can add the same hardware to a desktop mac as you can a Dell. Apple has no control what I put in the PCI slot. If there are problems with drivers on PREINSTALLED hardware on a Windows box, it is neither MS fault or the Hardware manufacturer’s fault, it’s the fault of the company that put it together in teh first place.

Gareth Potter

Matt,

There are bad drivers, granted. Really bad drivers. Generally from dodgy Taiwanese or Chinese manufacturers, where it seems as though the people who wrote the drivers also had a stab at writing the manuals.

But certainly not from the likes of nVIDIA and ATI, Intel and AMD. In my experience, their drivers are pretty good. And there is a quality control setup – the Windows Hardware Quality Labs thingummy whatsit and driver signing. If Microsoft grant WHQL status to those not deserving of it, then it’s their fault that they suck, because they shouldn’t be lowering the bar.

I stand my my point about the quote making no sense. Even if one did accept the idea that drivers are a/the cause of Windows’ issues, they certainly aren’t the cause of its usability/ease-of-use deficiencies. No, those are, as I alluded to above, simply the result of shoddy design.

And I have to confess I haven’t got the slightest clue what you are on about when you say that Intel and AMD are different architectures. They aren’t by anyone else’s definition of “architecture”…

G

wilson

That guy “Frank” maybe don’t know what is in the core of OS X, FreeBSD! I believe that “if” the hardware companies were releasing drivers for Linux, many people would have switched to Linux (did happen to friends of mine). There are “compatible” drivers and this is what Linux user’s actually install to get things working. The same “compatible” drivers shoud work on OS X, the only thing is that “Apple (Steve Jobs) will never sell OS X that could be installed on any PC. Jobs know this when he turn NeXt into a software company and switch to x86, NeXt was dead.

Michael

About a day or to ago I would have disagreed with you. That is before I had to manually install drivers on my Thinkpad. Finding the correct drivers for my new serial ata hardware was a bit of an adventure.

You’re right, Windows comes with very few drivers. Mac OSX comes with even less. Isn’t this why linux has such a hard time supporting hardware? Apple is smart to standardize their hardware and I can’t see them moving away from that now.

Gareth Potter

Mahalis,

The Mac has never been about the average man on the street. It probably never will be. It should be obvious from a cursory glance around a consumer electronics shop that there different classes of product, so to speak – cheap ones for the budget conscious (Alba in the UK), midrange/decent ones for those willing to spend a bit (say, Panasonic), and top of the line ones (i.e. Bang & Olufsen, Linn, etc). The computing world is no different, with Dell, Sony and Apple respectively filling those roles.

So people will pay for design. Even if Mac OS X were available for Dell boxen, there would still be those who would pay for Apple hardware. Especially the laptops, which are extremely highly regarded. It is probably not hyperbole to say that the PowerBook is the most popular laptop in existence.

Your “Joe Consumer” doesn’t really matter in all this. He wasn’t going to buy an Apple anyway, so, in fact, Apple would end up getting more money from him (through an operating system licence) than they would have otherwise.

G

Matt

“Microsoft write very few drivers. That task is, of course, the responsibility of the companies who design and manufacture the hardware itself – ATI, Creative, nVIDIA, Intel, etc.”

You don’t think that is one of the main’s why Windows is soo poor? Quality control is terrible and the coders of said drivers from theird parties don’t have the access to the code base thatthe coders from Microsoft would have.

The quote aboce makes fairly good sense to me. The problems with the Windows OS are largely due to the fact that it is trying to ensure 30 years of backwards compatability and a million different possible Hardware configurations. Do you think
having to support AMD and Intel chips makes a difference? It sure does. They are completely different archietectures and Windows has to support both.

Mahalis

“At least some”? There would no longer be any motivation for most people to buy an actual Mac – yeah, the Macbooks look nice and have Front Row and iSight, but hey, that Dell thing is a thousand bucks cheaper. Which one is Joe Consumer going to go for? Guess.

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