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Apple trails Linux connection for MacOS X

But will the open source world come over all Rhapsodic?

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Later today some of the great and good from the open source world are due to join Steve Jobs on-stage for the unveiling of Apple's new operating system, MacOS X Server. Could this be the day Apple sorts out its somewhat equivocal attitude to Linux and open source software? Apple will be pitching OS X Server as cheap, fast, robust and better than NT. It will be sold on the basis of per server licences, as opposed to NT's per user approach, the price tag in itself will be lower than NT, and hardware requirements will be less than NT. But a lot of that and maybe some more applies to Linux, so has Apple missed the boat, as we were saying last week? (Too late for MacOS X Server?) That will depend on what Steve has to say for himself, but OS X gives Apple plenty of room to manoeuvre. It's the successor of Rhapsody, which itself was derived form OpenStep/NextStep, the Mach kernel-based OS acquired along with Jobs when it was putting together its previous rescue plan. Rhapsody was intended to be portable, and given the basic platform that wasn't exactly a difficult proposition. NextStep started out on Motorola 68k hardware, and with the tag-switch to OpenStep executed a platform switch to Intel. But in between these two Next had been engaged in a port to PowerPC which never shipped. Some of the work involved in building Rhapsody/OS X will therefore have drawn on this, but as OpenStep was sort of Unix in the first place, this isn't what you'd call a massive development headache. Jobs' headaches lie in different areas. He de-emphasised Rhapsody in favour of the 'back to basics' strategy that has given us the iMac, and throttled all Apple's licensing deals with other manufacturers. That approach has it that Apple owns the compelling platform, which is a combination of hardware and software, and nobody else gets to play. If Apple was Intel or Microsoft you could grouse, but you've got to admit it's a reasonable survival strategy, and that it's been successful so far. You've also got to admit that it doesn't look like a strategy that will play well with Apple's new open source buddies (if that's what they turn out to be). But OS X could be different - at least as far as servers are concerned. Apple has never been a significant player in the server market, so there aren't really that many sales to cannibalise. Historically it's been far more important to Apple to co-operate with the Microsofts and Novells of this world so that Macs can run on their networks than it has been to sell servers of its own. So Apple could loosen-up on hardware platforms here without pawning the crown jewels, and it could still present its client Macs as different and unique. One of the more commercially compelling aspects of Linux is that the OS gives you a robust, effective server on a commodity platform, which at the moment has to be Intel, and Apple could take a similar approach by offering Intel as an option. In any event, this was always the intention with Rhapsody, and there may still be the matter of the odd stranded OpenStep for Intel user to consider (Apple did say it would support them, didn't it?). There are interesting nuances to the rollout plans too. By going with OS X Server now, but not shipping the client version until towards the end of the year, Apple is giving itself a clearly definable two-track operating system strategy to play with. But at the same time, it's still pursuing longer term development of OS X as a possible next generation OS, so if it finds PowerPC is failing to keep pace (IBM's reportedly losing interest in pitching for Apple's business, and Motorola may not stick around forever) it still has the option to switch. So do we expect Jobs to hug his new Linux friends and announce OS X Server for Intel? It's difficult to see why this would impress them. They've already got server software for Intel, thank you, and although they might like Apple's user interface, they'd like it for free, and along that route lie the dragons Steve fears. Apple clearly has to go for a mix of open source and proprietary, and it therefore has to go with a strategy that includes opening up the hardware to the open source world (which is something M Gassee will spit about, if it happens). The company could hope to generate some open source mindshare and development effort, and it may also make some promises about OS X Server on the Intel platform. But for the moment, it's really going to want to sell the software on its own hardware. Which is what makes sense. ®

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