Mac Musings

OS X Beyond the PowerPC

Daniel Knight - 2002.05.08 -

The computing world has three dominant platforms: Windows, Macintosh, and Unix and its variants. Despite porting Windows NT to the Alpha and PowerPC processors, Microsoft has abandoned all hardware platforms except one.

The Macintosh market has been split in two with OS X. The classic Mac OS is closely wed to Apple's own hardware and a handful of licensed clones. Mac OS X only runs on PowerPC hardware, although parts of it (notably Darwin) have been successfully compiled and run on PC hardware.

The third platform is not hardware specific. Linux, Unix, and their variants run on anything from decade-old Macs and PCs to minicomputers and mainframes. IBM itself has adopted Linux as its OS of choice for servers.

Looked at from another perspective, we have Windows wed to PC hardware, the classic Mac OS wed to Apple hardware, and OS X and other Unix variants that are more or less platform independent. Although low-end Mac users are unlikely to abandon the classic Mac OS, for all intents the battle will come down to Microsoft's virtual Goliath and a handful of Unix pebbles in David's hands.

The Real World Limitations

Because of the dominance of Microsoft Office on both Macs and PCs, Apple is unwilling to take on Windows and has consistently refused officially port OS X to Wintel. Were Microsoft to pull Mac support, Apple would be in a tough spot.

Yes, I know there are alternatives to Microsoft Office. I use AppleWorks myself, but in the business world it's Microsoft Office that counts. We may not like it, but that's the reality.

That said, there is great potential for Apple to expand their base as the industry moves beyond the traditional 32-bit Intel processors and their workalikes. AMD has a new 64-bit CPU that's backwards compatible with Athlons and Pentiums. Intel has Itanium and should soon have Itanium II. IBM has their Power4 architecture - and a roadmap for Power5 and Power6.

Each of these provides an opportunity for Apple to port OS X to hardware that is not already dominated by Windows and carve out a new market without undermining Microsoft on the Wintel side of the street. And Apple's announcement that OS X 10.2 will use the FreeBSD 4.4 code base will facilitate adapting the next generation Mac OS to the next generation hardware.

Unix Infighting

For nearly as long as there has been Unix, there have been Unix variants. AT&T had their Unix, and USC-Berkeley had theirs. Then came Linux and who knows how many more variants. Each *nix has its own fervent disciples and a dedicated core of programmers adapting their flavor of choice to their hardware of choice.

For nearly as long as we've had Macs and Windows, Unix users have been developing their own GUIs - X Windows, KDE, and Gnome among them. There is no single standard interface, just as there is no single standard underlying hardware platform.

Apple could provide a unified interface by porting Aqua to the dominant Unix and Linux platforms, selling it as a commercial GUI that could sit on top of everything from Linux-based Pentiums to IBM Power-based computers. And with OS X as the dominant Unix distribution already, Apple has the base to do it.

I think there's great potential for Apple to port Aqua to various flavors of Unix and a wide variety of hardware platforms. And to really sweeten the pot, they could do things like port and bundle iTunes, iPhoto, iTools, iPod support, and a few other goodies to provide some added value to the Aqua package. Next step: Port AppleWorks and help it become recognized as the real world alternative to Microsoft Office that it's always been.

This would also facilitate software development on Unix and Linux, since Aqua would quickly be recognized as a dominant interface. As the *nix world moves toward Aqua, it would become an increasingly viable alternative to the dated Wintel platform.

Apple could eventually move beyond the Aqua bundle to marketing an entire OS X distribution for various hardware platforms, but by starting small and porting Aqua to new hardware that Microsoft doesn't already dominate, OS X could be perceived as a real world alternative to Windows, something the classic Mac OS was never able to do.