The Ol’ Drivers Excuse

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. :)

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