Menu

Dvorak: Apple Needs to Make OS X Open-Source

A cloud is rising over Mac OS X and its future unless Apple makes its boldest move ever: turning OS X into an open-source project.

That would make the battle between OS X and Linux the most interesting one on the computer scene. With all attention turned in that direction, there would be nothing Microsoft could do to stem a reversal of its fortunes.

Let's start at the beginning. There's been a lot of fuss over Apple's rollout of the unsupported Boot Camp product, which lets Mac users run Microsoft Windows easily on an Intel-based Macintosh.

I got into various levels of trouble when I suggested that Apple was going to gravitate towards Windows, since it would be easy to do and there was some evidence that the company might want to do it.

Some people saw this prediction as somewhat contradictory, because I've also been advocating that Mac OS X be ported to all PCs and become an alternative OS for the rest of us on our standard systems.

Getting OS X onto PCs might be even more doable today, since researchers are reporting that as many as half of the business-owned PCs in operation now may not be capable of running Microsoft Vista. It seems like an ideal time to roll OS X over to the PC.

So what's actually happening? Well, here's what I think is going on, and also what I think should be going on.

Let's start with what's going on.

The Boot Camp product is pure test marketing. It's so obviously test marketing that it's hard to believe that people are foolish enough to get worked up about it.

You watch a test-marketing scheme to see the results. You use the results to make predictions. We do not have enough results yet to determine what's going to happen next.

The test-marketing scheme is likely to be carefully orchestrated and segmented as follows:

Step 1: Testing for level of interest. Will this initiative of running Windows on a Mac increase or reduce computer hardware sales in any noticeable way among the hacker nerds who bother to go through the process? Will this translate to a broader acceptance?

Step 2: Determining functionality without risk. Does Windows works well on Mac hardware or not? The idea here is to put it into the wild and see what happens in a support-free environment where Apple has no responsibility to help make it work.

Step 3: Blowback analysis. Apple needs to analyze the reaction to Windows on a Mac. This includes seeing whether there is massive rejection of the idea — protests, picketing, egg-throwing and flaming. In other words, can the community at large live with the idea of Windows running on a Mac? That cannot be known or assumed without this test.

So this testing scheme essentially breaks down to practicality, functionality and political marketability. So far, everything seems to be going well except for the blowback, which seems to be mixed but mostly positive.

Much of the positive reaction, though, seems to stem from the mistaken supposition that having Windows on a Mac will make OS X look better by comparison, so people will flock to OS X. This is a dubious and dangerous conclusion for Mac heads to draw.

So what do I think will happen now? And specifically, what is Apple going to do with OS X?

If the Windows test keeps going the way it's going, the results may indicate that Mac users are more likely to shift to Windows than we used to think. But what will happen to Mac OS X?

I suspect that the testing of Windows on a Mac might be duplicated in reverse, with a similar test of the Mac OS X running on a conventional PC.

Here again, we'd need to look at the test-marketing results.

In this scenario, the idea would again be to determine — by testing — whether or not getting OS X onto PCs would help or hurt Apple as a company.

The same three factors would be assessed: practicality (is anyone interested?), functionality (does it work at all?) and political marketability.

In the case of political marketability, one additional variable enters the picture: Microsoft perceiving this as a threat to its business.

Since no company, including massive IBM, has been able to compete with or unseat Microsoft from the desktop, Microsoft's stance alone may prevent any universal acceptance of OS X on the desktop from ever happening.

In fact, I assume that as this is being written, Microsoft has coders in its skunk works tearing into OS X looking for deep flaws that it can exploit and publicize.

Don't think otherwise. It only makes sense that they'd do this.

Thus a cloud is rising over OS X and its future unless Apple makes its boldest move ever: turning OS X into an open-source project.

That would make OS X versus Linux become the most interesting battle within the computer scene. With all the attention turned in that direction, there would be nothing Microsoft could do to stem a reversal of its fortunes.

But I repeat myself.

Discuss this article in the forums.

See John get cranky about technology in his new Cranky Geeks IPTV Show.

Go off-topic with John C. Dvorak here.

Copyright © 2006 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Ziff Davis Media Inc. is prohibited.