Gruber on Licensing Mac OS

I saw this post in Cult of Mac that references John Gruber of Daring Fireball’s contrarian view that Apple didn’t really miss anything by not licensing their OS. A big chunk of Gruber’s post concerns the impossibilty of porting the 80’s style Mac OS to PC/Intel hardware. The only thing is, I’m pretty sure he is totally wrong on that point. A few years back I read a couple of books on the history of Apple, and I’m pretty certain I recall that there was an internal experimental version of just this port – the then current Mac OS and Toolbox ported to commodity PC hardware – circa 1988 or 1989. I recall the account saying that it was demonstrated to company bigwigs, who didn’t want to pursue it because they didn’t want to canibalize the sales of their own high-margin hardware. I’d be all pompous about the rectitude of this point – like any self-aggrandizing pundit should – except that I really ain’t that sure on the details. Of course, if I was a real pundit I wouldn’t let that stand in my way.

I know that I have some readers of this blog that worked in and around Apple back in the day. Can any of you guys confirm or deny if I’m on the right track here? I believe the conventional wisdom that if Apple had chosen to license their OS prior to Windows 3 that they could have prevented the Microsoft domination of the world. At least, suffering as I am with doing a reinstall on the one Windows machine in my office, I would like to believe that.

Update: People who have come here from MacSurfer have been leaving comments filling in the gaps of my sieve-like memory. I was incorrect to use the terminology “totally wrong” about Gruber’s post. He was right for the era in question as far as that goes. Read the comment thread for more, but please let’s keep this civil if you leave a comment. This place is the cyberspace equivalent of my home, and I don’t want ad hominen attacks here.

Update 2: I’ve now talked with some friends who were at Apple when all this went down and placed such that they had inside knowledge of the Star Trek project. They say that they agree with Gruber’s basic point that this wouldn’t have changed anything, that Microsoft would be in still about the same position regardless. They say that the real reason that Star Trek didn’t continue on into the marketplace is that the team was repurposed as the group that ported the Mac OS to the PowerPC architecture, which makes perfect sense. Once you’ve ported to one different architecture, the next one should be simpler. They also think that the folksy warm fuzzy feelings about this project, that it was about giving consumers a choice in hardware, are incorrect. The motivation was to give Apple a choice of hardware vendors and to let them bargain harder with Motorola by saying “Look guys, we can run this on Intel if we don’t get the terms we want.” So, it seems I’m all wet on this, and Gruber is correct after all.

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Dave Slusher is a blogger, podcaster, computer programmer, author, science fiction fan and father.

11 thoughts on “Gruber on Licensing Mac OS”

  1. Gruber is correct that 1980s vintage PCs could not have run the Mac OS. The experimental Mac OS port to Intel hardware you’re thinking of (the infamous “Star Trek” project) was done in 1992, not 1988-9 (see Michael Malone’s book “Infinite Loop”). The original Mac was as much or more a hardware achievement than a software one. Its revolutionary user experience simply could not have been successfully implemented on contemporary commodity PCs, as the early versions of Windows demonstrated.

  2. Gruber is correct, but even he doesn’t put enough emphasis on IBM’s clout in the ’80s. Their position in the corporate and business markets along with their resources meant Microsoft had a big gorilla working the crowd. Apple realized their only source of business customers were the rebels and small shops, especially when Adobe made desktop publishing possible.

  3. … and yes, it did happen. (the tagline: To boldly go where no Mac has gone before).

    And yes, Gruber is wrong once again. PC makers, had they adopted Apple’s OS, would have included the necessary hardware to make it work well. Obviously.

  4. You know, if Paul Thurrott says you are right, you definitely are wrong. They could not have sold Mac OS to PC owners prior to 1992.

  5. This link from MacSurfer seems to be a mixed blessing. I thank all of you for your comments, but let’s please not get into personal insults.

    So as I score it:
    1 – I was correct that there was an internal port of the Mac OS to Intel hardware
    2 – I was wrong about the year, and those couple of years are important to the timeline of both MS domination and the state of commoditization of PC hardware
    3 – There probably is something to Paul’s point that if Apple had licensed the OS to hardware manufacturers who were motivated to make this work, someone would have also ported the hardware bits in whatever form that took, some extra chip or whatever. This allows both the point that Mac OS could have run on Intel hardware and that Mac OS couldn’t have run on commodity PCs to both be true simultaneously.
    4 – I don’t know that the IBM dominance of the 80’s means this couldn’t have happened. I think it could conceivably have given competitors a reason to band together against IBM. When was it that Apple was considering buying Compaq? Suppose that Apple had bought them and then turned Compaq into making Intel hardware Mac OS boxes? That seems like it could have happened with turns of events less random and unlikely than the whole chain of events that led to DOS being the OS for the PC.

  6. …the CHRP platform. Ž¶ This morphed -eventually- (early-mid 90’s) into the Apple designed PM4400, which ‘PC’ makers got licenses for. Ž¶ Some publicly belly-ached about the cost of the license which INCLUDED the OS and the NECESSARY ROM chip – Power Computing (formerly Leading Edge Inc) whined the loudest. They ALL took the easy route and marketed ‘their’ ‘Mac Clones’ to Apple’s customer base – rather than summing up the intestinal fortitude to push into the market areas that they claimed they were after.Ž¶ Should/Would McDonald’s continue to license Big Macs 😉 for Burger King to sell – if Burger King didn’t sell to existing AND new BK customers but to McDonald’s current customers? (BTW, this info is out there.)

  7. I told you Paul was wrong. Ask him about the iPod Mini that he predicted would not sell. Let’s see him apologize to Steve as well as to Gruber.

  8. The people you speak of were the Finance types. They are the ones who ensured Apple management that high profit margin was what they were after and that market share would take care of itself.

    Even Jobs admits that going after high profit margins was one of Apple’s biggest mistakes…. short of Skulley’s deal with Microsoft I suppose.

  9. I should have noted that the “k” is Sculley was intentional. If it weren’t for Sculley granting Microsoft a non-exclusive, worldwide, royalty-free, perpetual, nontransferable license to use the Macintosh “visual displays” in derivative works of present and future software programs (and to license them to and through third parties for use in their software programs), the landscape might look a tad bit different today.

    So, Skulley with a “k” is correct in my book.

  10. @ Skulley

    IMHO this license was granted under ‘friendly’ MS pressure of stopping development for it’s office application suite…Sculley didn’t have much choice.

  11. [this license was granted under ‘friendly’ MS pressure of stopping development for it’s office application suite…Sculley didn’t have much choice.]

    MS has a long history of making near 20% of their income from Mac customers. For all of S’k’ulleys cunning and moxie (doing an end-run around SJ), you’d think that he might of had some to actually call Bill’s bluff.

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