Blog Post

Apple’s Atomic War

Stay on Top of Enterprise Technology Trends

Get updates impacting your industry from our GigaOm Research Community
Join the Community!


With the release of 10.6.2, Apple (s aapl) killed unsupported support for the Atom processor — the processor used in low-cost netbooks. Certain models of netbooks could run OS X quite easily, and people used them to make the Little Netbook Apple Refuses to Make. While it’s a stretch to say Apple has killed the hackintosh market, it’s certainly proving it isn’t going to sit around and ignore it.

The reaction has been interesting and varies from casual indifference, to the defense of Apple’s action, to thinking Apple cancelled Christmas. While I’ve been a vocal supporter of Apple’s right to continue to club Palm (s palm) over the Pre syncing fiasco, I imagine it’ll sound hypocritical when I say I’m disappointed in Apple over this move.

Up until now, Apple’s stance with the hackintosh community has largely been don’t ask, don’t tell. The people who bought a netbook and, hopefully, bought a copy of OS X to install it, were aware of the risks of doing so. Getting it to run might involve waving a dead chicken at the screen, or it could be completely painless. However, the person undertaking this task knew of the risks. So, there was little harm done.

I’d like to take a look at some of the armchair theories I’ve seen, and offer my own armchair analysis of them.

Apple wasn’t happy with the (alleged) piracy

The piracy angle has two fronts: your interpretation of the EULA, and how many copies of OS X running on hackintoshes were purchased.

In terms of the EULA, while I know Apple strongly disagrees with this, my personal take is as long as I’ve bought a legal license of OS X (and if it’s an upgrade license like Snow Leopard, I have the requisite Leopard copy), if I want to install it on a piece of non-Apple gear as long as I don’t waste Apple’s or mine time with supporting it, I’m in the clear. Now, this is not legal advice in any way, and all the usual disclaimers. It may be a tenuous stretch, but in this case I don’t consider a person creating such a hackintosh a “pirate.”

The second front, though, has no defense. If you’re creating a hackintosh and download a torrent or borrow a buddy’s disc, and don’t own a corresponding license, you’re a pirate. Where things get gray is if you’re downloading a hacked OS X distro, but have a legal license, are you a pirate? I have no data on how many hackintoshes were running pirated OS X installs, and I don’t have any corresponding data on how many Snow Leopard installs are legal. That said, since Apple offers no copy protection, I’m going to say that piracy wasn’t a motivator.

Apple didn’t like seeing netbooks with Apple stickers on them

In the somewhat wonky world of Apple’s Land of Preventing User Confusion, I can actually see this one being a reason for doing this. Now, I go to a fairly technical university and the overall number of netbooks I’ve seen is small, and zero of them have been running OS X (unscientific poll taken while trying to find tables at the canteen and library). I’ve never actually seen a hackbook, much less one with an Apple sticker slapped on it. But there are enough pictures on Flickr of people doing this, so I can see Apple getting irate and going, “OK, enough already.” Who knows, maybe people were walking into Apple stores looking for “that cute little Apple laptop I saw the nice guy at the airport using.”

Apple doesn’t have products running the Atom chipset

I’ll buy this one. While having support for the chipset doesn’t hurt anything, it’s unnecessary code. Maybe Apple was thinking of using the chipset and decided against it. Maybe knowing support for that chipset was keeping Jobs up at night. If Apple does end up using the chipset, it’s easy enough to re-enable the code in the future. Which is about as close as I’ll get to mentioning the oft-rumored, never-promised Tablaslabawhatevah. Some have opined that by doing this code cleanup Apple didn’t know it was breaking Atom support. I don’t agree. While it’s possible there’s nothing evil about its intent, I think it was intentional.

The Psystar lawsuit forced its hands

Now we’re getting somewhere. Up until recently, creating a hackintosh was very much a do-it-yourself affair. You had to get the hardware and do the grunt work to get the OS on it. Granted, while it’s gotten a lot easier over the years and many sites have complete walkthroughs, it’s still an undertaking. Psystar, though, upped the ante. It recently released the Rebel EFI tool which, allegedly, will allow you to install OS X on darn near anything. It’s not a stretch to assume it’s going to sell a netbook running OS X. Given the lawsuit, I believe Apple did this to both be able to demonstrate to a court it has taken measures to prevent OS X from running on un-supported hardware, as well as eliminate a future product line from Psystar.

Like I said, I’m a little disappointed in Apple. But I can understand why it would cut the code for an unused chip. I’ve given some thought to getting a netbook and hackintoshing it, but after I got my new MacBook Pro a month or so ago, that desire faded away. I’m much happier using Apple-built hardware. I have a Dell Ultraportable laptop for work, and the small trackpad on that drives me nuts…I don’t want to think of one smaller.

What about you? What do you think of Apple’s decision?

23 Responses to “Apple’s Atomic War”

  1. Apple will never introduce an Atom-based gadget, because they know that every second ARM chip totaly kicks Atom’s ass while consuming far less energy… Atom is a piece of junk and if it wasn’t for Windows (which doesn’t really run on anything else but x86), netbook manufacturers would laugh Intel out of the door with it…

  2. For those of you complaining about apple:

    Just like you feel you have the right to do whatever you want with purchased software, Apple has the right to update their software in ways which they feel benefit them the most. They aren’t suing anyone who is doing this, or even threatening those of you who did. They are well within their rights.

    Now you can debate about whether this is beneficial to Apple or not, as they seem to be pissing off a few loyal customers. But Apple has decided that they will benefit more from removing Atom compatibility than from keeping it.

  3. I wonder if dropping the atom has more to do with the fact that most of apples CPUs are now 64 bit. Only some of the old core solos aren’t. As 10.6 progresses the 64 bit architecture they will stop supporting older 32 bit only systems.
    But again, this seems wierd, the machines they are dropping were never going to make them any money anyway, but actually was being used by probably their best customers. The ones willing to to to great lengths to get OS X to work where it was never intended. This would mean those going to buy a netbook will now probably just run it on WIn7 or Linux. The looses will be the OS X application developers as people will end up using more Windows only software, and potentialy Apple fans might work out they can live without OS X after all. Some may perminantly switch away.
    But then as Apple are perfectly happy to sue their best customers, I guess this shouldnt come as a suprise.

  4. TexasYellowDog

    Screw all of you assuming we all pirated OS/X to get it on our netbooks. My purchase of the Leopard family pack DVD was a sale. The first sale doctrine says I can do whatever I want with it. No after the sale EULA can convert a sale into a license. See the recent decision against Autodesk in the resale of Autocad. I love Apple products, and by all accounts, the Soup Nazi’s soup was the best in town. But you still have to put up with the Soup Nazi to eat it.

  5. joebrofosho

    I for one think apple did the right thing, people pay alot of money to use their OS, and people hacking the OS are making a mockery of all of us who actually did it the right way. Thank You Apple

  6. Good article. I used to run a Wind using Leopard and it worked so well it became my full time machine until I upgraded to a Macbook Pro. I think part of the reason for this may also have been speaking to something ryemac3 said – you dont think its piracy and if Apple offered a lowcost/small form-factor you’d buy it. But they don’t, at least for the moment. In Apple’s mind, someone buying a hackintosh-netbook might be seen as a missed $1000 sale for a Macbook (or Pro). Let’s be honest, and avoid the perennial debate about the ‘value’ of Mac soft- and hardware, and say that Apple sees no business sense in selling a $300 computer. That is because it runs the same software with comparable performance (the Wind was an excellent machine) with greatly diminished margins.

  7. Interesting too that the EULA for Snow Leopard has changed from “Apple-labeled” computer (in Leopard) to “Apple-branded” computer. They still give away the Apple stickers when you buy retail Snow Leopard.

  8. Sometimes I find I need a quick little laptop on the go. I can’t see myself spending $1000 on a MacBook just because I sometimes need one. I have a Mac Pro and I do all my grunt work on it. For me, a laptop is purely a luxury item. That said, a $300 netbook would fit my needs perfectly. But I hate Windows and refuse to use it. So what am I to do?

    I bought an MSi WIND an put 10.5 on it. I have since upgraded it to 10.6.1. I stood in line on launch day for both 10.5 and 10.6 and bought a full-fledged retail copy. I paid $3000 for my Mac Pro, and probably another $10,000 in Apple hardware and software. So I think I’ve paid my dues, and I don’t consider myself a “pirate”.

    While the netbook thing is OK, it’s good in a pinch, it’s just not the same as owning a real Apple product. If Apple came out with a $300 netbook tomorrow, I’d gladly hand over my cash for the “real thing”.

    • Sorry, but I love when people say things like, “I have spent xxx dollars on Apple products so I am now allowed to use their IP and not be a pirate”

      Guess what, you can spend all the money in the world on a product and that still only entitles you to the products or services that you *actually* paid for. Shocking.

      Finally, in regards to the above article, Apple has long been obsessed with user experience and work hard to test their software/hardware combinations. If anyone is taking their IP and using them in an unintended manner, I feel it is completely within the sphere of reasonable action to only support “Supported Platforms” regardless of other combinations that may work (chicken waving, etc).

  9. Apple has to. Blame it on Psystar if you will. They are fighting them to keep it off cheap computers. They have to show they are doing all they can. It is really Psystar who is causing all this fuss.

  10. It must be a really slow news period to churn out another 100% speculation with no facts article.

    How about waiting until actual information comes out about why this happened? It’s a kernel level change, and the OS X kernel is open source. Once Apple posts it, people can do a diff and figure out what changed, and why. Until then, this is all just pointless writing that riles people up for no good reason.

    • I highly doubt Apple will ever mention why they disabled Atom support. They just don’t comment on this sort of thing.

      And welcome to the world of Apple, almost everything related to the company is pure speculation unless it’s technical facts about a specific piece of hardware/software.

    • I’m not saying Apple will directly comment on this, but they will release the source code, unless they plan on changing the license they distribute it under. And the source code is likely to reveal what was really going on here. But no one wants to wait for that, instead churning out “news” story after story with 0 facts, stirring things up.

      And as far as “welcome to the world of Apple”, this is only because of “news” sites like this. One hackers discovery in a prerelease build turned into a firestorm of activity, for really no good reason. What frustrates me is that there used to be a clear division between sites that offered rumor and speculation, and the ones offering news. That line is now pretty much gone.

      I do appreciate your response to my comment. I just find the situation a bit ridiculous. Apple is the most overhyped company in the tech market these days, and it’s mostly due to sensationalistic reporting like this.

    • Mark Crump

      I was mostly commenting on some of the theories I’ve seen about why Apple did this.

      I don’t usually truck in rumors myself, although TAB does write about them. I don’t know that the original rumor from the hacker was “for no good reason” since it proved to be founded.

      I’m not sure what’s really sensationalistic about this story. Apple removed the code that would allow OS X to run on Atom processors. If I’d commented on it before a release version of 10.6, yes, I could see that.

      I appreciate your comments, but I think a discussion about this is valid.

    • I decided to browse through the kernel code in 10.6.2 (now that it’s out), and here is what I found.

      What specifically “killed” the Atom is in xnu-1486.2.11/osfmk/i386/cpuid.c, around lines 600.

      In the past, the kernel would check if the CPU family was 6, and if the model number was higher then 13. This basically means any Intel CPU newer then the Pentium M – Dothan (used in the Apple TV) was supported.

      The new code now specifically checks for family 13, 14 (Yonah), 15 (Merom), 23 (Penryn), 26 (Nehalem), 30 (Fields), 31 (Dales), and 46 (Nehalem_EX). The Atom is 28, so it doesn’t pass the check, and hits code at line 649 that panics with “Unsupported CPU”.

      Interestingly, in xnu-1486.2.11/osfmk/i386/cpuid.h, code was added to define families 28, 30, 31 and 46. Even though the kernel now panics with 28, “CPUID_MODEL_ATOM” is defined where it wasn’t before.

      I can’t say for certain why the change was made, but to me, it was a rework of a previous flawed check (is CPU family 13 or higher), and replaced it with one that checks for exactly what the kernel wants. There is a decent bit of code in the kernel that is optimized specifically for certain processors, so it makes sense to improve the high level checks.

      Oh, and there is a comment in cpuid.c that says “suck it atom hackers”.

      (Certain parts of this post in regards to code comments may or may not be true).

  11. Apple has, in my opinion, built its success on user-experience. This user-experience does not lie solely in the hardware, nor the software. Rather, a relationship between both. By allowing their OS installed on non-apple hardware, this relationship may not be a harmonious one. And in some cases, I imagine, fraught with problems. Thereby negatively effecting said user-experience. This, in my opinion, is reason enough to close the Apple eco-system and strictly control the marriage between Apple hardware and software. I am reminded of a quote from some decades ago that goes something like, “Any company that wishes to develop software, should manufacture their own hardware…” although I cannot currently find the reference, but the logic holds true.

  12. I hacked a Dell Mini 9 with a RunCore SSD a few months ago with a purchased retail copy of Leopard. The idea was to compliment my existing Apple setup of iMac and MacBook Pro, not to try and circumvent Apple. I’ve written about this on my blog ( Am I bothered about the latest development ? Not really. I’ve not yet installed 10.6 on the Dell, although I have upgraded the other machines (and still have a license or two spare). I’m happy with the netbook running a reasonably compatible system that allows me to share data and apps across my network, and saves me breaking my back when I’m on road. If a simple method comes along to update the RunCore with 10.6.x I may upgrade, but it ain’t a show stopper…