A Mac Angle on Linux

Matthew Rothenberg went to LinuxWorld and got a good feeling about the prospects for fruitful Mac-Linux co-existence on the desktop.

One of my favorite recent experiences as Mac tour guide was when I escorted my buddy (and Microsoft reporter extraordinaire) Mary Jo Foley to Jacob Javits Center for her first Macworld Expo and a bracing dose of Dr. Steves keynote patent medicine.

A veteran observer of Windows gatherings, versed in the stylings of Messrs. Gates, Ballmer et al., Foley was pleasantly impressed by the vitality of my little corner of the desktop market. She earned some kudos from Mac users for her subsequent remarks that Mac technology and its adherents can still teach the Microsoft majority a thing or two despite the numerical gulf between them.

Mary Jo may not be ready to cash in her ThinkPad, but this industry veteran did come away from the event with a new appreciation for the finer points of the Mac as a computing platform and a cultural touchstone. (Shes even made it back for a couple of subsequent Macworld installments.)

I had a similar cross-cultural experience at last weeks LinuxWorld here in New York, where I spent a few pleasant hours walking the floor and talking to the enthusiastic attendees about Linuxs desktop prospects, the role Mac hardware can play there and the chances of peaceful co-existence between Linux and Mac OS X.

It bore out a lot of what Ive been hearing from fans of both platforms: These are communities that can work and play well together on the desktop.

My longstanding creed of desktop heterogeneity has always seen creative possibilities in the perennial competition between the main commercial desktop OSes -- Windows with 90-something percent of the market and the Mac with most of the rest.

The vibe seems decidedly different when it comes to the current Linux-Mac relationship: The OSes shared Unix underpinnings and Apples partial embrace of the open-source principles on which Linux is founded spells a more permeable, symbiotic relationship between the two environments. Whats more, the availability of Linux distros for the PowerPC platform means that many Linux advocates have happily adopted Apples hardware—and especially its stylish laptops—to run their OS of choice.

(In that light, desktop Linux could actually be considered an engine for Mac market-share growth, albeit on a modest scale.)

Couple the overlap in software and hardware interests with the common ethos of rugged individualism spawned of their minority status, their shared suspicion of the Windows juggernaut and the Mac pedigree of many current Linux users, and both groups desktop aspirations seem congruent indeed.

"Many Linux users like the Mac OS," said Tim Ney, executive director of the Gnome Foundation of Boston, a consortium formed to back the Gnome user interface on desktop systems. "A lot of the open-source programmers have been working at Apple, and a lot of Mac users have taken to Gnome because of Nautilus," the Linux GUI project founded by Apple software veterans.

To Ney, Mac DNA has shaped the evolution of the Linux desktop and fed its user base. "Theres a lot of crossover," he said. "People who grew up in the Mac environment feel very comfortable with Gnome." He said Gnome 2.2 marks a "new point of usability" that "steps over" some of the capabilities of the Mac. "Young developers [on the project] can take the best [from the Mac GUI] and leave out whats undesirable."

The overlap between the environments seem even more tangible when you consider Apples recent announcement of support for the X11 windowing environment under Mac OS X, making it easier to port Linux and other Unix software to Apples OS.

Tangible benefits to Mac end users were already evident at LinuxWorld: Members of Sun Microsystems OpenOffice group told me that an X11 version of its open-source productivity suite will be running on Macs by May, and a rev that supports Mac OS Xs Aqua interface will arrive early in 2004.

While the desktop arena may be a peaceable kingdom where the Mac and Linux can coexist happily, theres more room for friction in the sphere where the latter is far more pervasive: in the server closet.

With the introduction of its rack-mounted Xserve server, Apple made a far more serious commitment than ever before to promoting Mac OS X as a server platform. While its been cautious about overselling its potential in the enterprise, Apple is clearly hoping to take a bigger piece of the market with a slick GUI alternative to the leading Unix server systems.

If the company continues to sell itself as a good open-source citizen that gives back to this vibrant community, though, Im counting on a warm reception for this Mac interloper at future LinuxWorlds.

And who knows? As Apple re-evaluates its trade-show commitments, maybe well even see a fruit-flavored booth at next years show. Considering Microsofts LinuxWorld presence, far stranger things have happened.

Mac veteran Matthew Rothenberg is managing editor of Ziff Davis Internet.