IBM Compatible

One of the biggest differences between Apple and the vast majority of tech companies is that everyone tends to have an opinion about them. Normally (and correctly), people only form strong opinions about products with which they’re familiar. Not so with Apple, a company which has long had vociferous detractors who have little or no experience using Apple computers.

Part of this is just foolishness, a by-product of the ignorant notion that everyone is entitled to an opinion on anything. (Bob Dole’s 1996 denunciation of the motion pictures Pulp Fiction and Natural Born Killers as “nightmares of depravity”, despite admitting that he had never seen either film, springs to mind.)

But part of this has been Apple’s own doing. Apple’s brand has always been as much about culture as about technology. There was a very strong us-against-them slant to much of Apple’s marketing in the hey-day of the first Jobs era; e.g. the “Computer for the rest of us” slogan for the original Macintosh. If there’s an “us”, there must be a “them”. And while this corporate posture was wildly appealing to us, it was off-putting, if not downright insulting, to those who perceived themselves to be thems.

This was never better established than by Apple’s 1984 commercial, directed by the dystopian auteur Ridley Scott, which aired in the third quarter of Super Bowl XVIII (Raiders 38, Redskins 9). The ad never aired again, and but is widely regarded as the greatest television commercial ever made.

The ad said nothing about what the Macintosh was. It didn’t even show a Macintosh. It served only to establish sides — the Macintosh and personal freedom on one side, the rest of the PC industry and mindless conformity on the other.

But who, exactly, was the Big Brother of Apple’s 1984? Unlike Orwell’s, it certainly wasn’t the government. Microsoft, of course, comes to mind. The ad’s Big Brother certainly sounds Microsoftian: “We are one people, with one will, one resolve, one cause.” And one operating system, right?

But 1984’s Big Brother only looks like Microsoft when viewed from today’s perspective. At that time, Microsoft was seen as just one of several successful large PC software companies. The same goes for Intel, which was “just a chip-maker”.

1984’s Big Brother was, if anything, a veiled reference to IBM.

IBM not only invented the PC platform, it gave it a name. Today we simply call them “PCs”, but for many years, they were officially known as “IBM-Compatible PCs”. The relatively recent coinage “Wintel PC” — meaning Windows software and Intel hardware — is much more accurate, but it was the IBM name that gave the platform prestige and recognition in the early years.

Many people — particularly those who aren’t, shall we say, technically adept — still call PCs “IBMs”, regardless of the manufacture. As in, “Oh, you use a Mac? I just bought a new IBM from Dell.”

IBM and Apple circa 1984 weren’t so much enemies as they were opposites. It wasn’t just that IBM had created and given name to a rival personal computing platform. That might have been the least of their differences.

IBM employees wore dark suits, white shirts, and ties. Apple employees wore T-shirts and jeans.

Their differences made it easy and obvious to portray IBM as Apple’s antithesis, but in reality, they weren’t competing much at all. And the two companies shared an actual common enemy: Microsoft, which (a) bamboozled the Sculley regime at Apple into inadvertently granting them (Microsoft) carte blanche to blatantly steal elements of the Macintosh look and feel; and (b) made a mockery of IBM with OS/2, which Microsoft had pretended to support as IBM’s collaborator, while secretly planning all along to abandon OS/2 in favor of Windows.

Apple and IBM in fact went on to collaborate on several early 1990s software projects, including Kaleida and Taligent, but such ventures produced little more than fumes from burned cash.

With Friends Like Motorola, Who Needs Enemies?

At least since the debut of the Macintosh, Apple’s biggest corporate ally has been Motorola, the manufacturer of the 68K family of processors used in the original Macs. For the PowerPC, Apple and Motorola teamed with IBM, but for the most part, Apple continued to rely on Motorola for its CPU needs.

It’s hard to believe now, but in the not-too-distant past, Motorola was a semiconductor leader, and Intel was but an upstart. Today, Motorola isn’t even among the world’s top 10 semiconductor companies — a shameful fall for a once-mighty company. In 1984, many would have argued Motorola made the finest CPUs in the world; today, no one would.

There’s long been a sense in the world of corporate IT that to go with Apple is to go it alone. In some ways, this is true — an investment in Macintosh software will do you no good on another platform. But it’s nowhere near as true today as it used to be. On the hardware side, today’s Macs use the same ports and peripherals as do PCs — USB, FireWire, and ethernet. And on the software side, Macs are even more cross-platform compatible. While genuine Mac software — i.e. Carbon and Cocoa apps — is still just as much Mac-only as ever, Mac OS X is a first-class environment for non-Mac software, including Java, web applications (Apache, Perl, PHP, MySQL, etc.), and even X11.

But perceptions run deep and last long, and the perception of Apple as a corporate loner is a damning one. Partnering with Motorola — a company seemingly more intent on making second-rate mobile phones than CPUs — doesn’t help. Partnering with IBM does.

IBM is an industry colossus. Written off as out of touch after Microsoft and Intel ran away with the PC market in the late 1980s, IBM has re-established itself as an industry leader in numerous lucrative markets, including semiconductors. With the G5, Apple is getting much more than a terrific new processor. They’ve also gained a powerful and respected ally. IBM has been supplying Apple with G3 processors (such as those used in the iBook line) for years, but their partnership has never been so prominent as it is now.

Last month Apple ran a two-page inside-front-cover advertising spread in major magazines like Newsweek. The ad focused not on Apple’s PowerMac G5 computers, but instead on IBM’s G5 processor. The ad carried two important messages: (1) Apple is deadly serious about CPU performance; and (2) IBM thinks Apple has a bright future.

The alliance fits both companies well. Yes, IBM still sells Wintel PCs — most notably its highly-regarded ThinkPad notebooks — but there’s very little competitive overlap. And so the irony is this: the new PowerMac G5 is, in a literal sense, more “IBM-compatible” than a Wintel PC from Dell or HP.

We’ve come a long way since 1984.