Apple's x86 OS named, sized

Project Marklar

It's long been assumed that Apple has maintained an x86-compatible version of its old NeXT OS, which these days is marketed as Mac OS X. But now a report at eWeek confirms its existence, status and staffing levels.

Nick de Plume and Matt Rothenberg report that an x86 version of "Project Marklar" is maintained in step with the PPC versions, has around a dozen engineers, and is even feature "complete" with the 10.2 Jagwyre version.

(Which presumably means it's got the new calculator that features a paper tape and currency conversions, not the old Apple calculator.)

In the early 1990s, after NeXT abandoned making hardware, it ported its operating system to a number of platforms, including Intel x86. The x86 version remained public following the Apple takeover and made it as far as this, Rhapsody Developer Release 2.

The Rhapsody strategy was sidelined when Apple's biggest developers balked at re-writing their MacOS applications in Objective C, and Apple decided to upgrade the Display Postscript imaging model to the a much more sophisticated (and processor-intensive) kitchen sink successor based on PDF: Quartz. Carbon, the Yellow Box, was always there - but it became a much higher priority after the revised strategy was announced in Spring 1998.

So will Apple embrace x86? We've been down this road so many times before, it now resembles a muddy, rutted battlefield pocked with the rusting remains of abandoned arguments. (I know you're thinking Route 101 south of San Francisco is bad - this is worse).

So we won't spend too much time returning to those arguments, because you know them well enough. Apple is a high-margin hardware company, and the switch to becoming a software house licensing an OS to all comers might not prove fatal, but it would certainly result in a much smaller, much less significant Apple. It would face the same problems that IBM (with OS/2) and Be Inc. (with BeOS) both encountered in trying to support a wide range of rogue hardware, and in trying to get OEMs to preload the OS.

(When Be snagged Hitachi as an OEM for a dual-boot system, Hitachi wasn't allowed to install the bootloader, or advertise the fact there was another OS on the system at the Windows desktop.)

We merely add one observation which tends not to be heard too often. One lesson that CPRM taught us is that protection systems needn't be dumb, and easy to break. CPRM is a very clever approach involving a matrix of keys. Crack one, and you still have several dozen more to crack, and these can be refreshed from a central server. So Apple could tie an x86 version to an XP-like registration scheme and not worry overly about the scheme getting hacked. As a consequence, it could keep marketing x86 boxes at high margins and not worry about hackers ripping the system to run on much cheaper Dell boxes.

Marklar most likely doesn't signal a strategy shift, it simply remains prudent business sense: it helps to have a Plan B, if only to use as a bargaining counter. Think of it as Mutually Assured Destruction. ®

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