Apples Intel Desktop Move Threatens Linux Desktop, Longhorn

By Steven Vaughan-Nichols  |  Posted 2005-06-07

Apples Intel Desktop Move Threatens Linux Desktop, Longhorn

Linux desktop and Longhorn developers suddenly have something in common: They should be worried, very worried, about Mac OS X coming to Intel processors.

The Mac community is in an uproar over Apple moving the Mac to Intel processors, but its the Linux desktop and Longhorn programmers who should be reaching for the aspirin.

Mac OS X is not only the best desktop interface for Unix-style operating systems, its the best desktop interface around—period.

Ive always known Mac OS X could run on Intel processors. Way back in 1993, I reviewed NeXTStep, one of Mac OS Xs ancestors, on a 66MHz 486DX2 with 32MB of RAM for PC Magazine. If NeXTStep could run on that, there was never any question in my mind that Mac OS X could run on todays Intel hardware.

Indeed, as Ive pointed out, Mac OS Xs foundation operating system, Darwin, is already there. And, my boss, Matthew Rothenberg, and a buddy of his reported almost three years ago that Apple was working on a Mac OS X port called "Marklar."

What that means for everyone else in the desktop picture is that they need to get better and they need to do it now.

Was it any coincidence that Apple CEO Steve Jobs makes it sound like well see Mac OS X on Intel before well see Longhorn? I think not!

Is Apple taking a risk with Intel? Read more in Peter N. Glaskowskys column.

To even have a chance to make Longhorns late 2006 deadline, Microsoft has been cutting out features like WinFS (Windows File System) and changing its fundamental infrastructure so that it will no longer be built on .Net Framework. Microsoft is as vulnerable as it has ever been on the desktop.

Microsoft has been giving Linux desktop vendors their shot at the big time. Jobs saw the same thing.

So now Linux desktop vendors need to get their act together in a hurry if theyre going to make anything of their chance. If the Linux community wants to play a major role on the desktop, it needs to get products out now that can challenge the Mac OS X desktop.

For starters, that means getting all their efforts behind one desktop. They cant afford to waste time and energy working on both KDE and GNOME. Pick one, and get on with it (my choice: KDE). Stop the whining over which is better. Heres the simple truth, troops: Mac OS X is better, a lot better, than either one. Either the Linux desktop gets its act together in the coming year, or it will never become more than a niche operating system.

Next Page: Linux developers need to refocus.

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You know what else? If youre a Linux developer and youve been spending time on, say, porting Linux to the prehistoric z80 processor or writing device drivers for the long obsolete ESDI (Enhanced Small Device Interface), maybe you should consider spending your time on something thats more productive.

Im not the only one to make that argument. Ulrich Drepper, a Red Hat developer, makes the same argument in his blog. The only difference between us is that I believe refocusing the Linux communitys energy is critical.

Now Linux desktop developers do hold a few cards in their hands.

For starters, Linux has a lot more drivers for the x86 platform than Apple and friends have. But I wouldnt count on that ace too much. The part of Mac OS X that talks to drivers is based on FreeBSD. No, the BSD operating systems dont have as many developers as Linux, but their best people are the equal of Linuxs best.

Now, more then ever, the major Linux distributors—Novell/SuSE and Red Hat—need to talk to the hardware vendors. If they cant get them to build Linux drivers, they need to give them a full-court press to at least open their APIs so that the Linux open-source community can do what it does best and develop the drivers themselves.

For insights on the Mac in the enterprise, check out Executive Editor Matthew Rothenbergs Weblog.

The Linux desktop also has more desktop applications for the x86 platform than Mac OS does. OK, so you will be able to run legacy PowerPC applications on x86 PCs with "dynamic binary translation." Ive seen this kind of emulation many times before. Even the best—Digitals FX!32 translator for the Alpha a few years back for my money—doesnt give you much bang for your processor buck.

On the other hand, if Apple, with some help from Intel, manages to get Mac OS X running with VT (Virtualization Technology), all bets on performance are off.

VT is still a work in progress, but its built on technology from VMWare, and that company has already shown with products like VM Workstation 5 that it knows how to build virtual machines that dont sacrifice performance for compatibility.

If I sound a little harsh, well, tough. The Linux desktop community has to make a decision—and has to make it now. Do you want to become a fanboy operating system like AmigaOS on the desktop, or do you want to fight it out with Apple and Microsoft for control of the desktop?

Its your decision now. Choose wisely. Senior Editor Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been using and writing about operating systems since the late 80s and thinks he may just have learned something about them along the way.

Check out eWEEK.coms for the latest open-source news, reviews and analysis.

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