Darwin on x86 – Apple's Intel interest

Apple prepares its emergency PowerPC exit strategy

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Analysis Apple software developer Wilfredo Sanchez's note on an Apple bulletin board that he's got Darwin - Apple's open source OS project and the basis for the upcoming MacOS X - running on Intel's x86 platform may not be a tacit 'MacOS X for Intel' announcement, but it sure comes at a very interesting time. In his posting, on Apple's Darwin Development bulletin board, Sanchez notes briefly: "Wednesday, the whole thing compiled for the first time for both PowerPC and Intel. That's been my target for the past couple of months, and now I'm just ironing out details." Should we be surprised about this? Not really, no. Darwin ultimately derives from NeXT's OpenStep OS, which was Intel-based, and the initial versions of Apple's OpenStep-meets-MacOS next-generation operating system, which were discussed by Apple in terms of both PowerPC and Intel releases, with the key 'Yellow Box' API (now called 'Cocoa', of course) appearing as add-ons for Windows and MacOS, and as components of the fully-fledged Rhapsody for PowerPC and Intel. Intel inside Darwin is simply the latest incarnation of Apple's much-tweaked post-MacOS operating system strategy. And while Intel compatibility has been dropped from the plan - in public, at any rate - since Darwin is an open source project, it's always been possible that an enterprising software engineer would port the code over to x86. And since Sanchez is head of Apple's open source development, he's the obvious guy to do it. When Darwin 1.0 - it's currently available as version 0.3 - ships, presumably in the not too distant future; like as not in time for the final beta of MacOS X, due this spring - it will almost certainly appear in Intel and PowerPC forms. Apple is, after all, giving Darwin away for free, so it makes sense to get it out on as many platforms as possible, partly to get more people using Apple product, but mostly as a subtle promo for MacOS X itself. So if there's nothing surprising about Sanchez's comment, what's the big deal? In itself, nothing, but taken with one or two other issues, it begins to take on new significance. A week or so back, the rumor mill churned out a nice little item suggesting that a couple of unnamed Wintel PC vendors had been talking to Apple about licensing MacOS X. And just before that, indications emerged of serious ructions between PowerPC developers Motorola and IBM, and of difficulties in the evolution of the PowerPC processor. PowerPC partnership Without trying to untie the Moto-IBM imbroglio right now - for that, see Motorola, IBM: cold warriors - suffice it to say that Apple is at risk (pun not intended) from a real bust up between IBM and Motorola, who despite being partners seem to get on less well than AMD and Intel. If the cold ware between IBM and Motorola limits the evolution of the PowerPC as a desktop CPU - a limited market for either company, so neither need be too loyal to their only significant customer there - that can cause real problems if you're working, as Apple is, in an industry where performance is all. Apple, in short, needs an exit strategy, and MacOS X provides it. That's not to say that it is going to abandon PowerPC at any time in the future, near or far, but that if it really needs to, it can. MacOS X's Darwin core is, as Sanchez has now proved, cross-platform, and its backward-compatibility system, once called Blue Box, but now known as Classic, can probably be easily converted into an emulator - a sort of VirtualPC in reverse. It's the operating system, stupid But what about the hardware? Look at it this way: what sells the iMac? Is it it's processor, or its ease of use (a feature of the OS) and styling (nothing more than plastic)? Let's be honest here, beyond running OS and software, and keeping Apple's costs down, the PowerPC processor has nothing to do with the success of the iMac. Ship an iMac with an Intel Celeron and MacOS X for Intel and you'd have just as viable as sales proposition: a stylish, easy-to-use OS and a great looking box. The same is true of the Power Mac. The only problem would be the iBook and PowerBook lines. Because of the PowerPC's low power requirements, swapping in Mobile Pentiums would be a problem. But the next generation of Intel's SpeedStep technology, which changes the chip's power requirements dynamically according to what tasks it is being asked to perform, will improve the Pentium's reputation as a volt-gobbler. And if that doesn't work, there's always Transmeta's Crusoe, with its very clever power management system hardwired in. Several Apple insiders have already claimed to have seen a prototype Crusoe-based PowerBook running an early Intel version of Rhapsody via the chip's x86 compatibility layer (though it has to be said that's primarily because there Transmeta doesn't yet have a PowerPC compatibility layer). Fire exit The point here is that Apple has developed a neat way of differentiating its hardware from other PCs, and one that arguably works irrespective of the processor on which its machines are based. Right now, it makes sense for Apple to stress its support for PowerPC, for a number reasons. First, it wants to show that it is different from the Wintel hordes. Second, for the time being at least, the PowerPC does have the potential to match Wintel. Third, it's politically expedient. If Apple's support for PowerPC is seen to waver, Motorola and IBM might well shift even more development onto their target markets, and that means even less chance that the PowerPC will meet or beat Intel's current performance. Apple's differentiation also means that it could reintroduce licensing in a limited form. If Apple has been talking to PC manufacturers, it means that it no longer considers licensing a problem. CEO Steve Jobs canned cloning - rightly so - because it was cannibalising Apple's own market share, but that's less of an issue now. Sure, Apple doesn't want mass cloning, but if a small number of Intel guys want the MacOS X, why not let them license it? Apple's hardware is well able to compete, and by widening the potential audience for MacOS X - by allowing people to try it without having to buy a completely new system - Apple may feel it can encourage x86 users fed up Microsoft's monopoly but discouraged by Linux's user unfriendliness to move over at a later date. I'll say it again: none of this makes an Apple move away from PowerPC a certainty, but it does mean the company's future is closer to x86 than you might think. ®

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