May 4th, 2009 by Mike Fulton
Categories: Apple, Macintosh, Tech

Anybody who’s followed Apple for any length of time probably has a laundry list of things they wish Apple would do, or of things they think Apple should do, or things that they can’t understand why Apple hasn’t done already.  Here’s a few things on my own such list.

Sell OS X Separately From The Mac Hardware

One of the long-time questions is why doesn’t Apple they sell a version of Mac OS X that could be installed on standard PC hardware?  There are a lot of answers.

If the Mac OS X could easily be installed on just any PC machine, it would be heavily pirated.  Right now, there’s not too much of that going on because you need to jump through a lot of hoops to install the OS onto non-Mac hardware.  In effect, it’s like the Macintosh hardware is a big copy protection dongle for the Mac operating system.  Keep in mind that the Mac hardware is fairly profitable for Apple.  Selling the operating system by itself would certainly cut into Apple’s hardware sales, but with piracy to consider, there’s no certainty that it would generate enough profit to make up the difference.

Another factor is that currently Apple doesn’t have to worry about supporting twenty eight different motherboard chipsets and near-infinite numbers of combinations of chipset, video card, hard disk controller, network adapter, etc.  They have a relatively small number of hardware combinations to deal with, which makes it much easier to do testing and debugging and to create a stable crash-free system.  In theory, anyway.  Of course, the Mac does still crash from time to time, but it’s much less likely to do so because of some goofy bug in a hardware driver.

If Apple did sell their OS separately, it would have to include a much wider range of hardware drivers than it does now.  It would also need a lot more quality control testing to make sure that everything works properly.  This would be a significant expense, so Apple would need to be convinced they could sell enough copies to cover the additional costs.

One option Apple might consider is having some sort of “Macintosh Certified Hardware” program where only certain combinations of hardware will be supported.  If they limited official support to fairly recent hardware, it would make their task much easier.

Ironically, the current bad economy is probably a good thing for those wanting Apple to to sell the OS separately from the hardware.  Apple has been doing fairly well for the past few years, but you have to think that the downturn in the economy is going to have some impact on Mac hardware sales.  People just aren’t going to have as much money to spend and a lot of them will turn to less expensive computers instead of the Mac.  With that in mind, I suspect that there will come a day when Apple will decide to sell the Mac OS separately.  But it might be a few more years down the road. 

Make An Apple-Brand Netbook

In Apple’s own mind I’m pretty sure they think they’ve already created an Apple-brand netbook in the MacBook Air.  Think about it for a minute… Take a look at the MacBook Air and then at one of the popular PC netbooks like the Asus Aspire One or the Acer EeePC.  How much of a difference is there, really, in the hardware?  It really comes down to four areas.  The main processor, the screen size, the size of the keyboard, and the graphics processor.

The entry level MacBook Air has a 1.6ghz Core 2 Duo processor while most netbooks are running a single-core Atom processor running at 1.6 to 1.8ghz.  The dual-core processor offers a lot more performance but is more expensive and chews up more battery life.  Other than that the main difference is size. There might be a few other changes to the hardware to bring the cost down a bit, but mainly if Apple made the display and keyboard smaller, they’d have the netbook everybody is asking for. 

The MacBook Air also has an NVIDIA graphics processor instead of something cheaper.  I don’t think this should add tremendously to the cost of producing the machine, compared to alternatives, so my preference would be to keep the NVIDIA GPU.  However, if necessary, this is one area where costs could be reduced a bit.

Let’s say Apple were to make a new machine in the netbook category and price it at $599.  That’s a fair bit higher than your basic PC netbooks, but it’s far cheaper than any portable Mac has been to date.  Frankly, does anybody think Apple would come out with a netbook at the same price as the PC models?  The first thing that machine would do is completely kill the market for the MacBook Air.  Why would you pay $1800 for an MacBook Air when $600 would get you practically the same machine with just a slightly smaller screen?

One big problem with this scenario is that a $600 Apple netbook would make it very hard to argue against the idea that Apple’s hardware is overpriced.  Aside from the fact that other netbooks would still be $200+ cheaper, such a machine would also fuel the question of why Apple’s other laptops are that much more expensive.

Don’t get me wrong… I would absolutely love to see a little Apple netbook.  I’ve considered trying to install OS X onto an Asus Aspire One or something like that, but just haven’t gotten around to trying it quite yet.  But I think the only way that Apple would release such a machine would be as part of a larger change in strategy.  Perhaps they could release it as a second generation, much cheaper MacBook Air, for example. Taking the first generation model off the market would eliminate the price comparison.

One thing that I would like to see Apple do if they enter the netbook market is to include a 3G cellular phone/modem in the machine.  This would help to differentiate their offering from the other netbooks on the market.  One of the big mysteries of the MacBook Air has always been why Apple didn’t include a 3G modem.

App Store For Mac

Given the overwhelming success of the iTunes App Store for the iPhone, one can’t help but wonder why Apple hasn’t tried to setup something along the same lines for the Macintosh computer.  The idea has been tossed around enough times in the media that it’s inconceivable that it hasn’t been discussed a few times in Apple HQ conference rooms, but so far there’s been no hint that they play to make a move in this area.

It’s become commonplace for software publishers to allow you to buy their product online from their website, and then download the product to your computer.  This works fine in most cases, provided you’re looking for a certain specific title.  But what about those times when your search isn’t that specific?  Doing searches on Google simply isn’t going to offer the same sort of optimized and streamlined shopping experience that iTunes and the iPhone App Store offers.  With that and the success of the IPhone App Store in mind, one has to think that the time is ripe for a Mac-based App Store.

Of course, there are big important differences between the iPhone platform and the Mac platform that affect how things would work.  First and foremost, with the iPhone there is no other (official) way of getting software onto the machine other than via the App Store.  This gives Apple total control over what gets onto the phone, unless you’re one of those outlaws who have jailbroken your iPhone.  (“Jailbreaking” is the process of modifying your iPhone so that you can install software via other means than the App Store.  It’s against Apple’s license agreement.)

So, the first issue to be answered about a Mac App Store is whether or not the applications have to be approved by Apple before they’re offered for sale.  Even though the Mac App Store wouldn’t be the only means of distributing software like it is for the iPhone, it would very likely become one of the main channels.  Being rejected for it could have a big impact on an app’s sales.

Quite a lot of the iPhone apps that do not get approved for the App Store are rejected because they’re doing something that would cause conflict with Apple’s relationship with the cellular phone service providers like AT&T.  For example, there are apps that turn your iPhone into a wireless access point to which other devices can connect to get Internet access.  This is known as “tethering”.  Apple hasn’t allowed this with the iPhone so far because the amount of data bandwidth such a setup typically uses is far beyond what is normally consumed by non-tethered Internet access.

Other iPhone software gets rejected for the App Store because it could potentially provide a backdoor into the system.  For example, Apple has stated a few times that Flash isn’t available on the iPhone because they’re unhappy with the performance they’ve seen.  However, one of the fundamental abilities of Flash is the ability to download and run other Flash movies and access the internet.  Given the full spectrum of abilities normally available through Flash, it would be child’s play to create another means of installing applications on the system.  The same is true for Java.  Therefore it’s not hard to imagine that those issues are a factor, regardless of what reasons Apple may cite publically.

Neither of these situations apply to the Macintosh computer, however.  The Macintosh computer is an open system and always has been.  So I would imagine that developers would have much fewer worries regarding rejection for a Mac App Store than they do for the iPhone App Store.  Apple might want to impose restrictions on things like adult content, but that’s the main thing that comes to mind.

The iPhone App Store offers developers a 70/30 split of the sale price of an application.  That is, Apple keeps 30% and the developer keeps 70%.  Apple incurs all of the expenses involving in processing the purchases.  For the prices that a typical iPhone app goes for, that’s not a bad deal for either side.  However, given that computer software can be somewhat more expensive, I think Apple would have to offer a more favorable split to developers, at least for the higher priced stuff.  Maybe it would be 70/30 at the low end for the software that is under $30 and 90/10 for software that is $500 or more, with varying intermediate tiers.

For developers whose products are currently sold at retail this is probably a better deal than they get selling wholesale to dealers or distributors.  For developers whose products are currently sold mainly through their own websites, it’s a bit less, but it’s likely that increased sales volume would make up the difference.

There would be a lot of big advantages to having a Mac App Store.  For one thing, it would provide a much more effective channel for low priced software than anything we have now.  Looking for a $10 game for your Mac?  There are plenty of them out there… your job: find them.  Currently you’ve got to go browse and search the web somewhat haphazardly.  But with a Mac App Store, all you’d have to do is run iTunes and click the mouse a few times.

There are literally thousands of cute little apps for the iPhone that could just as easily be done for the Mac, but which don’t make sense for developers to do without something like the App Store in place to help market them.  Or which end up being priced at $19.99 when sold through the publisher’s own website simply because of the low sales volume.  A Mac-based App Store could create an entirely new niche market for small $5.00 and under applets.

The downside to the whole idea is that it could hurt Mac dealers.  They would likely have to cut prices on Mac software in order to give customers a reason to buy software in the store rather than online.  This might shift some sales from the Apple retail stores to the Mac App Store, but Apple would likely be getting a bigger profit off the latter so they wouldn’t be hurting themselves.  As for retail outlets other than the Apple Store, it’s hard to say if Apple would care one way or the other.

You know, the more I think about this one, the more I’m leaning towards the idea that it’s something that Apple very well might do sometime soon.  There doesn’t seem to be any big reason why they shouldn’t do it, and lots of reasons why they should.