It sounds simple enough, but the answer is surprisingly open to semantic disagreement.
In its simplest terms, the Macintosh is a brand name for computers made by Apple; like a Vaio is a Sony, or an Inspiron is a Dell. But for the Mac, it means a little bit more than that. So to answer, it helps if you know what a PC is...
So, what is a PC?
PC stands for 'personal computer'. So you could say every small desktop or laptop computer could be called a PC. But in 1981, IBM launched their personal computer, imaginatively called the IBM PC. It was based around an Intel CPU, and was licenced to run a Microsoft provided OS, called MS-DOS.
It closely followed that virtually every other computer manufacturer went on to design computers that adopted compatibility with IBM's PC. From this point on, the acronym 'PC' became more or less synonymous with IBM PCs and their 'clones'; based on an Intel compatible CPU, and capable of running Microsoft's operating systems. To this day, most personal computers are an evolution of this standard. They are PCs.
So, what is a Macintosh then?
Not every personal computer manufacturer adopted IBM compatability. Others took a different direction.
The most prominant and successful of these were Apple. Their Macintosh brand of personal computer launched in 1984 were different. They weren't clones of IBM's PC. They didn't use Intel CPUs Motorola provided them and they certainly didn't run Microsoft's OS they provided their own. So while they were indeed personal computers within the strict definition of such, they were not PCs within the commonly adopted definition. This distinct difference from the rest, meant they were a computing platform by themselves. Hence, they simply became known as 'Macs'.
See also reason 10 for more of a look at the PC and Mac's histories.
The Intel transition
Since 1994, Macs had used PowerPC CPUs from Motorola and (ironically) IBM at their heart. This continued the tradition that Macs were still very "different" from most other PCs; technically as well as compatibility.
But then in 2006, the architecture of the Macintosh range began a further transition. For the first time ever, Macs were being built around Intel CPUs. Just like PCs. The side effect of this is that physically, Macs and PCs design and minor technical hardware differences aside became largely compatible with one another. As such, this long standing dividing line between Macs and PCs, suddenly became 'fudged'. Was a Mac personal computer now also a PC?
Hardware wise, for all intents, yes they now pretty much are. But of course, the difference still applies that Macs are designed to primarily run, and is bundled with its own unique OS i.e. Mac OS X and not a Microsoft provided one i.e. Windows. But one big difference now is with its internal architecture being much like a any other PC, it now has the potential to run either or both with Apple's and Microsoft's collective blessings. Which is nice. It does however remain, that this is not so with other PCs.
The Mac is dead long live the Mac
So what does this mean when referring to PCs and Macs as different computer platforms? Some may argue they aren't; that Apple is now just another 'Wintel' PC vendor. But I think from a consumer's perspective, that would be confusing.
I believe the most rational way to define a computer platform, is what OS it will be pre-installed with, or prevalently intended to be used with. For most brands or home built PCs, that will be Windows. They are PCs. For Macs however, while they can run Windows, it still stands alone as the one mainstream PC brand that is intended to be used with its own OS; Mac OS.
So while there will inevitably be some overlap, it should remain defined as a separate computer platform from the rest to emphasise this major defining difference.
All Macs are still Macs, and all Macs are PCs, but not all PCs are Macs. See? Simple!
Page content last updated 21 September 2008