Apple preps AMD-based thin client

Credibility stretching time...

Mac Rumour Roundup Apple is working on an x86-based diskless workstation aimed - we guess - at corporate desktops and educational establishments, according to a post over at Wincent.org.

And, just to get the juices of all the anti-Intel folk out there flowing, the x86 chip Apple intends to use is an AMD part.

Sounds too good to be true? It may well be. The Wincent.org article provides no attribution for the information on which it's based. The only evidence it offers is MacOS X's ability - thanks to its Unix core - to host multiple, remotely connected users, something MacOS X Server used as the basis for its NetBoot facility.

Shaky

That's a pretty shaky base on which to build a claim that Apple is radically changing its processor strategy. To strengthen it, the article alleges that MacOS X "is being developed on GCC, an open source, cross platform compiler noted for its flexibility and true platform independence. The immediate effect of this is that with little modification, MacOS X will run with a single recompile on a suitable x86 system".

Now, we're not sure about this. True, Darwin, MacOS X's open source core, will compile on x86, but it seems a bit far-fetched to say the OS' hardware independence is down to GCC. We'd attribute it more to the Mach kernel and its hardware abstraction layer.

In any case, does any of this shout out 'Athlon or Duron-based diskless workstation'? No.

That the upcoming server version of MacOS X will offer NetBoot like its predecessor makes perfect sense, but why offer a diskless workstation? Terminals like the one mooted in the article are already exist from other vendors, but the come in at around $500 sans screen. A NetBoot-capable iMac (with screen, you'll note) isn't much more expensive than that. And the fact remains that thin clients have yet to take any significant marketshare from desktop PCs.

On the issue of MacOS X apps not running on the x86 box, the article has an answer: the terminals simply run the UI and relay user input to PowerPC apps running natively on the G4-based server. It's certainly plausible - it's how Citrix's MetaFrame technology works, although the host is a Windows NT/2000 box. Doing that from scratch would require a lot of development work on Apple's part - work that's unnecessary given how well NetBoot already works with iMac clients.

Costly

Put it this way: supporting x86 terminals would cost more than Apple can hope to make selling the terminals instead of iMacs. It would be better off promoting the hardware it's making already than developing an entirely new system. Anyone willing to buy in a shedload of G4 servers to support all this really isn't going to insist on x86 clients.

Now, x86 clients served from x86 servers might make more sense as a requirement, but why choose MacOS X over Windows/MetaFrame or a similar Unix-based combo? One has plenty of customers in place and a well-established development history, and the other, MacOS X, doesn't.

No, this makes no sense unless Apple needs to offer client workstations that are phenomenally cheap - ie. a few hundred bucks, tops - and the economics of building x86 systems plus all the back end coding works out cheaper than doing it with PowerPC-based machines. This seems unlikely.

HomeNet

Alternatively, Apple may be priming the system for a specific potential corporate customer. Or it may simply be an internal 'let's just see if we could do it' project. At a pinch it could be an Apple information appliance project, but the article offers nothing to suggest this.

For what it's worth, we reckon there might be something tucked in there somewhere. MacOS Rumors mentioned two interesting Apple items recently: a $499 box said to be a machine with a built-in LCD screen, and a house automation system.

In themselves, they're all a tad far-fetched. Using Macs to switch on lights and heating is stretching all this 'Digital Hub' stuff a bit, and we can't see Apple making the numbers on a $500 box with a 1024x768 LCD screen work. If it can get LCDs that cheap, it would be far more profitable to add them to the iMac line and/or shipping cut-price LCD monitors.

But combine all this stuff, and you can possibly see the glimmering of a home system strategy that revolves around remote clients AirPort-connected to a main home server. That's an exciting approach for Apple to take, but it still doesn't need chips from AMD or even Intel to make it work. ®

Related Links

Wincent.org: Apple to introduce remote desktops, x86 access clients on MacOS X
MacOS Rumors' items