The OS X-on-x86 rumors have buzzed incessantly since Apple Computer began shipping its Unix-based (and therefore fundamentally multi-arch-friendly) operating system, but conventional wisdom tagged the transition as impossible.
Now that Steve & Co. have confirmed the rumors by announcing that Apple will transition completely to Intel chips across its product line by the end of 2007, perhaps its a good time to flirt some more with the idea of whats impossible.
I predict that, shortly after the completion of Apples big move, the company will deliver OS X Unbound—a version of its excellent and innovative operating system thatll join Windows, Linux, Solaris and OS Xs own BSD cousins in offering users the option of running the OS theyve acquired on the hardware they choose.
In fact, I believe (and maybe therell be a magic Steve Jobs keynote moment in our future to confirm it) that this has been the Apple co-founders aim ever since he returned to the companys helm. Jobs knows that Apple will never wrest away a significant chunk of Microsofts Windows market share as long as OS X remains tied exclusively to Apple hardware.
Microsofts OS monopoly, in addition to putting a “start” button on almost every desktop in sight, has ingrained a particular sort of business model in the computer market—consumers can choose from a variety of system OEMs and processor vendors on which to run their software.
Computer consumers, particularly companies, arent going to surrender the flexibility of multiple vendors and abandon the still-valuable hardware they possess in exchange for a single, vertically integrated supplier that gets to call all of the shots.
Anyway, Apple itself cant afford to offer the breadth of hardware options that companies and individuals demand—wheres the four-way, dual-core Xserve, or the Mac tablet or the Mac home theater system? What about customers who opt for AMD64, for Transmeta, or for one of Vias fanless mini-ITX systems?
Apple can only take so many hardware gambles on its own, but an unbundled OS X will enable Apple to spread out the risk—the way Microsoft does—while reserving the choicest, highest-margin slice of the pie for itself.
Now, you may be thinking:
1. Apple is a hardware company, not a software company.
2. Without Apples complete control, an unbundled OS X wouldnt “just work.”
3. Unbundling OS X would cannibalize Apples hardware sales—thats why Steve killed the clones.
For those of you who contend that Apple is primarily a computer hardware company, ask yourselves where the locus of innovation at Apple resides—its OS X and the suite of slick software tools that are built atop it into which Apple has obviously poured the most attention.
While Apple has also built some very nice system enclosures, the machines these cases enclose have been growing steadily more (gasp) Dell-like.
When people talk about moving to Apple and talk about the problems that they expect the Mac to solve—the Mac is less virus-prone, its easier to use, it provides a friendly portal to Unix and open source—theyre talking not about Apple hardware, but about OS X.
What about the much-vaunted, unified hardware and software experience on which Apple hangs its hat? Apple will bill its own systems as the truest path to the full Macintosh experience, and Apple-built machines will remain among the prettiest and best-put-together computers you can find.
Whether or not things “just work,” however, will depend less on a potential OS X hosts origins (theyre all made from the same parts, anyway) or on the shape of its case, and more on whether OS X drivers are available of the machines parts.
As Linux distributions (with which I now frequently experience better out-of-the-box hardware support than I do with Windows) have demonstrated, driver demand, even from a small slice of the market, has a way of filling in HCL gaps with surprising efficiency.
While OS X will run most seamlessly on Apple-built machines, Apple can ensure good hardware compatibility in the same way that every other OS vendor does—through a hardware compatibility list.
Finally, you may be thinking that an unbundled OS X would kill off Apples hardware business, and that the Steve Jobs who closed down the clones once before wouldnt allow new ones to spawn.
In my opinion, the move to extinguish the PowerPC clones was less a repudiation of the Mac clone concept than a necessary first move to wean Mac users away from PowerPC all together. By making Apple the sole supplier of PowerPC Macs, Jobs freed Apple to make a cleaner break from the architecture, on a time table of his choosing.
As for x86 white-box cannibalism, I contend that the same people whove gone out of their way so far to buy Apple-built systems will continue to do so, and that Apples industrial design strengths will keep the companys hardware in demand despite the availability of white-box Macs.
The fact that companies and individuals will have the option of standardizing on the excellent OS X platform without having to buy 100 percent Apple-built machines will actually open the doors wider for Apple hardware, because a move to Mac will no longer require throwing away the hardware that companies and individuals already own, and the OEM relationships that buyers have already formed.
If Im correct, why is Apple denying it?
After the keynote, Phil Schiller said that, although Apple will do nothing to prevent users from running Windows on Apple boxes, Apple would not allow OS X to be run on non-Apple machines.
Apple needs to deny its plans to unbundle in order to give itself the head start it needs to ramp up its Intel box production, and to prepare developers to enter the wider x86 world. Until Apple has readied its own x86 offerings, it needs the promise that only Apple hardware will run the flashy and cool OS X to keep people from buying boxes from Dell or other vendors that are already ramped up to produce rival systems.
For the longer term, however, Steve & Co. are too smart to allow protectionist attitudes toward one part of their product line to retard sales of another—thats the sort of “strategery” that prevented a Sony too focused on shielding its content properties from the digital age from delivering consumers a worthy, MP3-playing heir to the Walkman—thereby leaving open the door to the now-dominant iPod.
Perhaps second to the iPod, OS X is Apples hottest commodity, and millions await the chance to pay Apple $130 every year and a half for it. Now that OS X is queued up to launch on x86, The Steve is way too smart to clip its wings—I guarantee.
eWEEK Labs Senior Analyst Jason Brooks can be reached at [email protected]