Mac Musings

Why OSx86 Is Good for Apple

Dan Knight - 2005.08.15 - Tip Jar

It only took the hackers two months to figure out how to make Mac OS X from Apple's Macintel developer systems work on ordinary Windows PCs. The hack, known as OSx86, has been available via BitTorrent since late last week.

We're pretty sure Apple isn't going to applaud these efforts. Apple has the #2 computing platform - way behind Windows - and has clearly stated that OS X for Intel (once it ships) will be written to require an Apple computer. It's not supposed to run on just any Wintel box.

Regardless of Apple's official position, I think OSx86 is a great thing.

No, it's not because I condone piracy or violating nondisclosure agreements, both of which are involved in the distribution of OSx86. Nor is it because I think Apple should support standard Wintel hardware. But we'll get to that.

Developer Systems

Apple's developer systems use off-the-shelf Intel motherboards. These are not the final product we're going to see when the Macintel computers start shipping next summer.

Yes, the Macintel motherboards - and you can be certain that production Macs will include custom Apple motherboards - do have a Trusted Computing chip, and Apple appears to use that as a roadblock to moving OS X to standard Intel hardware.

But keep in mind that this is a development system and these are stock motherboards. Apple has only shipped a limited number of developer systems, has been porting OS X to standard Intel hardware through the entire OS X development process, and probably didn't see any reason to include strong protection for a prerelease, unoptimized version of OS X running on a machine that will never be available to the general public.

In other words, OS X on these development systems is a quick port to Intel created so programmers can create software for the new hardware platform. It's not the final product, which we don't expect to see until June 2006.

Why OSx86 Is a Good Thing

What OSx86 demonstrates - and why I consider the hack a good thing for Apple - is that the hacker community is very interested in OS X. They've used Windows, they've worked with Linux, and now they're looking at OS X to see how it compares to what they know.

I hope hundreds or thousands of people download OSx86 and try it on their Wintel hardware. (I think it would be marvelous to see it on my Acer laptop, even if there aren't many apps for it yet.)

The people monkeying with OSx86 are the ones others look to for advice when buying a new computer. If these people are taking the time and effort to learn OS X, that's very likely to turn into free marketing for Apple. "Wow, I've been playing with OS X on my PC. It's soooo much better than Windows!"

The Dangers of OSx86

Someone may end up in deep legal trouble over this, but the only real dangers of OSx86 are that it may have some bugs and that it may not work on a lot of Wintel boxes.

Apple has been addressing the bugs since OS X began development, and their Darwin project has been working on parts of the Intel version for years. Any bugs in the Intel port should be dealt with in short order.

The biggest problem on the Windows side of the market is hardware. There are a host of different motherboards, a huge number of different video cards, and legacy Pentium 1-4 machines (plus Celerons and AMD-based ones) going back several years. The people playing with OSx86 are the ones who realize that unsupported hardware means their PC may not run OSx86.

The problem comes when non-hackers download OSx86 and try to run it on their computers. They may mess up their hard drives. They may end up with a nonbootable system. And they may blame Apple for the whole mess.

That's a big part of the reason Apple has to distance itself from OSx86. They won't support any hardware except for their own development systems, and OSx86 is going to be installed on anything but Apple's machines.

Microsoft

The other reason for Apple to distance itself from OSx86 is that they don't want to be seen as competing with Microsoft in the realm of operating systems - at least not yet. Apple may have the #2 computing platform behind Windows, but it's market share way behind.

A generic OS X for Intel that doesn't require Apple hardware would not only damage Apple's bottom line, but it would be perceived by Microsoft as a direct threat to Windows. (Then again, you have to wonder why all those Windows XP commercials are popping up on TV in the past two months. Maybe they already consider OS X a threat.)

Apple is not in a position to go head-to-head with Microsoft, nor does Apple have the resources to support OS X on thousands of differently configured PCs.

The OS X on Intel Future

Like John Dvorak, I don't think it's unreasonable to expect Apple to release OS X for Intel at some point. They need only point to OSx86 to demonstrate that there is demand.

However, at this point Apple is a computer company, not a hardware company or a software company. Selling just the operating system would undercut Apple's computer sales, and right now those are crucial to Apple's future.

But things are changing. The iPod, Apple's killer product for the 21st century, dominates the portable music player industry and is becoming a larger, more important part of Apple's business model.

It might be the very success of the iPod that allows Apple to license OS X to other computer makers or even sell a retail version of OS X that can be installed on most modern Wintel hardware.

But that's somewhere down the road. I don't expect Apple to license OS X to anyone else until the entire Macintosh product line has made the transition to Intel. But two or three years from now, who knows....

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Dan Knight has been using Macs since 1986, sold Macs for several years, supported them for many more years, and has been publishing Low End Mac since April 1997. If you find Dan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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