Apple Should Open Up and Unbundle OS X

Opinion: Whether plausible or not, the rumor about OS X on x86 is an extremely resilient one due to the user community's desire for choice.

Hard on the heels of "Tiger," Apples latest Mac OS X release, came a report in The Wall Street Journal that Apple is preparing to incorporate Intel chips into a forthcoming product.

The story breathed new life into the recurring rumor that an x86-compatible version of OS X is in the works. If the report is correct, its more likely that the Intel chips would show up in a mobile device—perhaps one of Apples smash-hit iPods with a processor from Intels XScale line—than in an x86-powered Mac.

Whether plausible or not, the rumor about OS X on x86 is an extremely resilient one due to the user communitys desire for choice. Although Microsoft enjoys a desktop monopoly and growing server clout, Mac OS X is a compelling alternative on the desktop and is impressive on servers as well. But since OS X runs only on Apple computers, customers seeking to insulate themselves from Windows lock-in by moving to the Mac only lock themselves into hardware even more dramatically.

Companies are justifiably averse to binding themselves to a single supplier. If you have a beef with Apple, its not like switching from HP to Dell; its a full rip-and-replace of your hardware and software. As a result, OS X on the desktop and server—and the intriguing improvements that attend its update every year and a half or so—remains confined to a small slice of the computer-using population.

Its not that the x86 is computing nirvana. But despite possible architectural disadvantages, the vibrant x86 ecosystem has delivered compelling new products and technologies in volume.

Apple has consistently resisted unbundling its operating system from its hardware. But now is a better time than ever to consider doing so. The advantages of the G5 pale in comparison with having more than enough power and memory addressability, along with less heat generation and power consumption. Advanced Micro Devices 64-bit architecture is arguably the future of mass-market CPUs today—and OS X is fully capable of being delivered on AMD64.

Sun Microsystems, which used to brag about its ability to provide a fully integrated vertical stack from SPARC chips through the Solaris operating system, now may depend on x86-64 for its future; likewise Microsoft, which recently began shipping x86-64 editions of Windows XP and Windows Server 2003.

Such a move by Apple would not be without technical challenges, but Linux and OS Xs BSD siblings, all of which boast much broader hardware support than OS X, have demonstrated that the goal is a very achievable one.

Customers need to be able to team the best hardware with the best software to suit their needs. As long as Apple demands total control, it will remain a niche player. That would be too bad—for customers, because Apple has a lot to offer, and for Apple, because selling OS X to a wider audience means higher volume and more profits.

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