• Mac OS X, Open Source and Other Silliness

    April 22nd, 2006

    Sometimes I wonder if a few tech commentators just want to make waves, rather than say anything useful, let alone factual. Consider the case of USA Today’s Andrew Kantor, who recently came out with the outlandish suggestion that people, once properly exposed to Windows XP courtesy of Apple’s Boot Camp, would ditch the Mac OS in huge numbers.

    I’ve already weighed in on that, suggesting it was one of the crazier ideas in recent memory. However, Kantor pushed some buttons, got lots of hits and even if he found himself inundated with hate mail, no doubt his bosses at Gannett were happy over the attention.

    Now we have another experienced button-pusher, John Dvorak, who was once an Apple booster way back when. He has long-since deserted the platform and decided to imbibe Kool-Aid full time. He wants to provoke rather than enlighten, and thus comes out with his own brand of outrageous pronouncements.

    The latest is his suggestion that Apple make Mac OS X open source, so it can work, side-by-side perhaps, with Linux the fight the good fight to unseat Microsoft from its dominance of the operating system market. Here Dvorak seems to forget, or at least ignore, one key detail, a tiny detail perhaps, but one that’s nonetheless quite significant: Apple makes most of its money from selling personal computers. Despite the stellar growth of the iPod, the Mac remains critical to its balance sheet.

    So consider the consequences. If Apple makes Mac OS X completely open source, and not just its core, it loses control over the system, and leaves it open to thousands of programmers to change it, and not necessarily change it for the better. Anyone who has explored the world of Linux can understand that it’s quite chaotic, because there is no single, unified version. There are different variations, each of which carry lots of installation options. Power users may adore the situation, but if you want something to “just work,” is Linux really the answer? What about the plight of the consumers to whom Apple caters, if they were forced to sort through this mess to make thing work?

    Consider, also, what would happen to Apple’s hardware if Mac OS X enters into the wild. It would no longer exclusive to Macs and perhaps PC boxes configured by a handful of crackers. No, everyone would be able to download a distribution of one sort or another, and install it on their cheap Dells or Gateways. So what happens to Apple’s finely-configured business model? Do the sales of new Macs go up or down under such a situation? This is not a trick question, and we all know how it would gut sales of Apple’s computers real fast.

    It is true, historians will remind me, that the Mac OS was, long ago, a free download to anyone who wanted to set it up on a handful of floppy disks. But don’t forget that it still was designed to run strictly on Macs. Only Apple didn’t monetize its operating system in those days, but it eventually learned that it can’t shortchange itself as the operating system became larger, more complex and more expensive to develop.

    So what’s Dvorak’s game here? Does he really believe his tall tales, or does he somehow want to see Apple fail big time? That would of course, justify his trip to the Dark Side years ago. Maybe it took a few more years to accomplish, but in the end, he’d be victorious, and he could watch Apple’s final descent into obscurity once iPod sales peak and taper off.

    Wait, did I say taper off? Well, eventually that will happen, and Apple will have to find a way to replace it with a compelling line of consumer electronics products. But that’s another question and somewhat beyond the scope of this article.

    Conspiracy theories might suggest that Kantor and Dvorak are quietly laughing their collective heads off watching Mac users tear them apart online and via email. Surely they can’t be serious? They do just want to get people talking, even if the words are not the ones you’d utter in family surroundings.

    Or maybe they are indeed serious, which would be the most tragic development of all.

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    One Response to “Mac OS X, Open Source and Other Silliness”

    1. Sean Siberio says:

      Open source does not equal GPL, and the idea that every single open source project will fork into a million branches is ridiculous. While its true that Linux has over some 400 different distros, other OSS OS’ (notably OpenSolaris and the BSD’s) have at best 3 or 4, and the non-main distros are usually for specific and limited niche areas.

      That said, I don’t see how Apple could make money in such a situation without changing the very core of its revenue stream. If they open-sourced Mac OS X, and let anyone run it anywhere, they would have to move to a Red Hat/Novell service/solutions oriented model, and I’m not sure if Apple has the staffing or the expertise to do such a thing. They could also go the Linspire route and sell a stable distro along with application subscriptions to OEM’s who would want them. Their flagship products such as Final Studio and the like could see their potential applicant userbase go up.

      All this is speculative, and the end of the day, highly doubtful. Any such move would be fraught with peril and the possibility of its simply cannibalizing Apple. The only reason I would see them do it is if Mac OS market share dropped so low that it became simply unsustainable to covet the high end hardware margins over the long-term growth of the user base. And considering the recent uptick in sales, and the potential to move up a couple notches on the scoreboard without giving an inch on the margins, I doubt Apple is even considering the idea.

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