Switch Different

I don’t want Windows on a Mac. I want OS X on a PC.

Steve Jobs

This week Apple released a free download called Boot Camp that lets you run Windows on its new Intel-powered Macs. As a Mac nerd, I know I’m supposed to gush that this is a brilliant move for Apple and an exciting day for me. Instead, I’ve been struggling to figure out why a Windows boot from Apple warrants front-page play in the New York Times.

If you want to understand how I’m feeling, take a look at this Joy of Tech comic strip. Two squat, pasty geeks hack their Mac to boot Windows. When XP’s rolling-green-hills desktop appears, they slap a jubilant high-five … and then stare blankly at the screen in silence. Now what are they supposed to do?

Boot Camp isn’t Apple’s admission that it’s giving up and becoming a Windows PC-maker. Rather, Apple hopes that upwardly mobile PC owners will load Windows on its classier hardware, then eventually switch to OS X rather than hurt their eyes staring at Microsoft’s inferior OS. As a bona fide aesthetic snob, I can relate. I get queasy looking at Windows’ blazing blue color scheme, its graceless menus, and the sprawling messy logic of Microsoft applications. Deeper down, my PC’s innards have proven vulnerable to viruses and to an ever-increasing sluggishness, for which the only cure is a total disk wipe. I can find ample fault with OS X: The animated icons! The inconsistent application controls! The Spinning Beach Ball of Death! But even compared to demos I’ve seen of the upcoming OS X look-alike Windows Vista, it’s the obvious winner.

I usually stifle my deep-geek opinion and defer to the people’s choice. But Boot Camp isn’t for the Times-reading masses. To use it you’ll need to download Apple’s boot loader software, burn it to a CD, print out the instructions, reboot your Mac with only the printed instructions to go by, and have your copy of Windows XP Home Edition with Service Pack 2—that’s $220 at Target—at the ready. Mac pundit John Gruber summed it up as an offer for enthusiasts only: “You try explaining ‘boot loaders’ to your mom.”

I found a few friends planning to Boot Camp their recently bought Macs, but only to play videogames that aren’t yet available for OS X. I’m pretty sure that when I hit my local Apple store Saturday, I won’t find a line of Switchers lured in by Boot Camp. For Windows users, a new Mac is a big step up in price. For Apple loyalists, Windows is a big step down in software. Boot Camp lets you buy the most expensive computer and load it with inferior software. Thanks, Apple. Thanks a lot.

But, wait—what if Apple offered the opposite deal?Instead of a disk that allows you to boot Windows on a Mac, what about a disk that lets you boot OS X on any Intel-powered PC? I don’t want Windows on a Mac. I want OS X on a PC. Dedicated hackers can already do it themselves. The only thing that’s keeping everyone else from loading Apple’s OS on a Vaio is a free disk—and Apple’s blessing, of course.

Face it, most of your time at the computer is spent interacting with the operating system and applications, not admiring the case. OS X is an excellent operating system, with a lovely, soothing interface that doesn’t wriggle like a bug. Why not run it on the cheapest computer you can get? If you cracked open a new Mac and took stock, you’d realize you could buy the same computer much cheaper by ignoring its packaging. Once you got rolling on e-mail and Web surfing, you might even forget what your PC looks like. What matters is what’s onscreen.

Sound crazy? Apple actually tried this, allowing other manufacturers to produce “Mac clones” for two years during Steve Jobs’ absence from the company. “The styling of the Mac clones often more closely resembled that of a PC,” Wikipedia notes accurately, “but the clones frequently offered a lower price and sometimes better performance.” Bill Gates himself proposed the idea in an earnest 1985 letter to then-Apple CEO John Sculley shortly after Jobs’ ouster. Sculley passed on the idea, leaving a successor to try it, perhaps in desperation, 10 years later. Jobs killed the clone program when he retook the helm in 1997. He’s since locked Apple’s software into one different-thinking hardware product after another, from the original iMac to the iPod nano.

With Boot Camp, His Steveness has now made it clear he’s willing to win customers one step at a time by separating hardware and software. So, why not break the other taboo? Tempt Windows-haters with a better—and at $129, cheaper—operating system, then upsell them to Apple’s sexier hardware. Like a status symbol sedan, a new Mac would look great and make you feel better about yourself, but drive pretty much the same as your previous vehicle.

But that’s not what Apple execs are thinking. They claim that users who boot up Windows on their Macs will eventually nestle into the bosom of OS X. “Most of them will switch and find they never need to run Windows,” one Apple pooh-bah told reporters. It’s not fair to call that dumb. Rather, it’s an Apple fan’s delusion—one I long nursed myself—to presume that savvy Windows users will ditch the familiar software they’ve spent years learning to use. They won’t. Not even for something better.

Apple shouldn’t withhold its operating system as a final reward for Switchers. Instead, it should push OS X on users early, while they can’t afford the company’s real moneymaker—its hardware. That would live up to the Mac’s original slogan: a computer for the rest of us.