Apple machines a "walled garden"

For years, a dominant debate in the technology world has been the “Mac v PC”* question – that is, whether the products produced by Apple, or those made by Microsoft, are better, and in particular which company’s operating system is superior. While I don’t think there is an objective answer to this issue, I do believe there are some key differences between the two competing products.

The main of these differences is in the business models by which Apple and Microsoft distribute their two operating systems. While Microsoft works through a licensing model, making the software and then selling it to other manufacturers to place within their computers, Apple directly distribute their OS with their own small pool of hardware.

Users of Apple technology live in a walled garden, a little ecosystem of compatible Apple-approved hardware (and in some cases, like the iPhone’s, software) where everything can be said to be “perfect”. Components are carefully chosen for compatibility, and often single vendors (Intel, Nvidia) are exclusively selected, to aid the process. What the end-user finally gets is a nice package, that they can set up and use, and which “just works”. And that’s it.

Of course, the problem with this method is that you don’t really have a choice of what you want. You get what you are given, and live with it, until it beocmes outdated – then you have to buy a new machine (unless you buy a Mac Pro, but even thenyou still don’t have full access to all hardware components). If you really like OS X for other reasons, but would rather a HD 5770 video card, well, you don’t have many options. Maybe many end-users are happy with this – but of course, the people that contribute to such debates as the “Mac v PC” one have personal interests in the state of information technology and are most likely not the sort of person to let their machine’s internals lie stagnant.

Once you switch to Windows, you are stepping out into a different world, where you have an unlimited choice over hardware and other components, and are free to construct your computer in whatever way you like. Even OEMs, who recieve volume licenses from Microsoft to put Windows on thousands of machines, still choose a vast majority of different setups for the machines they sell. You get to choose.

However, in that world, problems do happen, and this is why there is a perception that “bad things” happen to Microsoft products more than Apple’s. Driver incompatibility and other bugs have plagued many Windows releases, and indeed evidence shows that buggy Nvidia drivers were responsible for almost 30% of Windows Vista crashes – far more than what was caused by Microsoft’s own code. And this, for the most part, is why people dislike Windows (apart from subjective UI and method differences) – because it simply isn’t as stable as OS X running on Apple’s select machines.

In the end, it is all about safety, versus choice – the safety of the walled garden that Apple has created for their operating system, against the endless possibilities of Windows and the inherent danger presented by that. Maybe neither situation is better – but I’m sure there’s one that you like more**.

As a note, it is interesting to see that the walled garden model that Apple has applied to the software on its iPhone smartphone, with applications only available through the Apple-controlled App Store, is being adopted by Microsoft for their new Windows Phone series. Hardware specifications will also be tightly controlled (though there will still be more models than what Apples has). Maybe they are getting tired of the endless incompatibility too? But then, the smartphone market is very different.

  • * Funnily enough, now that OS X runs on the x86 architecture, Apple machines are also, for a common definition of the word, PCs.
  • ** That was not a call to flame this article. Civil comments still appreciated.