Apple gears up for Open Source MacOS

Or, how to turn Apple into NeXT after NeXT became Apple

Slowly but surely Steve Jobs' -- or perhaps his henchman, software VP Avie Tevanian, since Jobs is just interim CEO after all... -- plan for Apple begins to emerge. In short, Apple buys NeXT, Apple absorbs NeXT's technology and methodology, and... Apple becomes NeXT. NeXT essentially started out as Jobs' attempt to recreate Apple. His team built a Mac alternative but ultimately couldn't sell enough machines to make it all work profitably. So, NeXT ended up as an OS company. Curiously, Be -- also formed by a senior ex-Apple guy, this time Jean-Louis Gassee -- has gone trod exactly the same path. But that's by the by. Apple is fundamentally a hardware company -- yes, it creates an OS, but it's the iron that makes the money. This is a problem for Jobs and his NeXT team, all software people. So, how do you get from one profit centre to the other? How, in short, do you make Apple a software company instead of a hardware operation? Well, the information leaking from Apple suggests MacOS X is the key. MacOS X is essentially Rhapsody, in turn essentially NeXT's Unix-based OpenStep OS. The difference between each of these three operating systems is the level of MacOS toolbox compatibility they offer and how that compatibility is achieved. MacOS X, in both its Server and Personal/Lite versions, is written in Objective C, the arcane object-oriented version of C favoured by NeXT before C++ became established. Being written in a high-level language and being based on a microkernel makes MacOS X easy to port to other platforms. Rewrite your kernel for the x86 family, simple recompile your apps and -- bingo -- you've got MacOS X for Intel. But the OS is rather more modular than that, allowing the Yellow Box APIs -- the key features of OpenStep -- to be ported to other platforms. Indeed, Apple's original plan was to offer not only Rhapsody for Intel but Yellow Box for Windows 95/NT -- user would be able to go the whole hog and install a new OS, or simply add Rhapsody application compatibility to existing Wintel systems, allowing legacy apps to be preserved. It now appears Apple is going slightly further than that. The Carbon APIs it announced a while back as a sop to third-party developers unhappy with having to rewrite their apps for Rhapsody are now likely to be bundled with Yellow Box (since Carbon is probably nothing more than a MacOS interface and code that translates other MacOS Toolbox calls into their Yellow Box equivalents, that's no big deal) and ported to other versions of Unix, including Linux (see Apple ponders cross-platform future for MacOS). In short, Apple is positioning MacOS X as a graphical shell that sits on top of a variety of Unix derivatives. Jobs has consistently talked about making the most of what makes the MacOS unique: its look and feel. And this is exactly what this approach does. Extra MacOS X features like unlimited scalability cluster processing will help the sale. So, the theory runs, users buy into the MacOS because it gives them a better, more productive computing experience, whatever hardware they're using. So, OS sales go up in proportion to hardware sales, and Apple becomes more of a software operation. The trouble is, while the MacOS interface is far superior to most Unix GUIs -- especially the rather ugly KDE -- the point is, KDE is Open Source, and thus available to everyone. That's a circle Apple really has to square to make the plan work. One possible way is to embrace the Open Source philosophy -- or as much of it as a commercial organisation can. Apple is believed to be keen of giving the MacOS X source code to higher education -- another relic from the NeXT days -- which is tantamount to making it Open Source, since anyone who wants the source will pretty much be able to get it. More likely, some kind of Open Source (ish) licence will emerge, much as Sun has done with Java 2. That will allow it to get the benefits of rapid bug fixes and the support of the Open Source community without losing control. Since mainstream users don't want to be bothered with all that nerdy compilation of source code nonsense, even a quasi-Open Source MacOS has the potential to bring in the bacon. Certainly any Apple Open Source-style licence would prevent other companies selling MacOS distributions in the way RedHat et al do with Linux. The Unix binary file format Apple is said to be preparing for submission to the ISO will help here, since it can more easily make the MacOS available online ready for installation on supported platforms. ® See also Apple plans Linux Mac launch for MacWorld

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