Home / The View from Here / It's Dark in the Box
By Joseph Palmer
I used to get excited about architectural purity, I would argue the superiority of the Mac over the PC for hours on end, It was so easy since I was right. But then one day I lost my religion.
I was working at Apple at the time, we'd finished the 68K AV machines and I was looking into the PREP proposal. I was at first repulsed by the PC components I was reading the specs for, after all the DMA in the 840AV was so much better, and Apple had this DBDMA architecture in the works that would be even better(!) I could (and did) argue the merits of DMA architectures with the best of them. I plugged my nose and went from one PC component to the next, everything was less than optimal, everything could be improved. I was still right, the Mac was still superior to the PC in lots of little ways.
Then one morning I tried to imagine what the Mac would look like running on CHRP. Take the Apple brand monitor away, was it still a Mac? Yes. I had proof. I had a Magnavox monitor on my Mac at home. Keyboard, Mouse? Yes again. Some of the workstations and PCs I'd used had really nice input devices. Oh oh. What made a Mac a Mac? time to look in the system. CPU? was 68K, now PPC. It could be changed again. Still a Mac. Memory? I kept needing more, but the memory SIMMs kept changing all the time anyway, so that's not it. I/O? well I would miss auto eject floppies, but by then most of my new software came either on CD ROM or was downloaded from the internet. Serial ports? The Mac serial ports were much better, but the PC ones were capable of everything I actually wanted to do. One after another the hardware "advantages" of the Mac were measured against the PC, and were found to be better but...
All that really mattered was the user experience of the software. It didn't really matter what was in the box, or who it was from, because it was dark in the box and that was that.
When I designed the BeBox I used the PREP design and a PC I/O system. We didn't have the resources to invent a better DMA controller, so we didn't. Guess what? The PC one worked well enough. Would the BeBox have been "better" with a new DMA architecture? Yes. Would the end user have been able to tell? Probably not, but the delivery schedule would have slipped. End users notice that.
What did I learn? Pay attention to what matters. Pay attention to features and performance that can really make a difference to the end user, and never forget that it's dark in the box.
A couple of years back I met a marketing person who firmly believed that NT for PowerPC would pull the PowerPC ahead of Intel, especially in the server market. I knew he was wrong, since in this case not only was it dark in the box, but the box was to be locked into a dark room.
Copyright © 1997 Joseph Palmer. All Rights reserved
Comments or Ideas? Mail me at email@example.com.
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