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Weekly Column

This Time the Flavorade is Sweet: How Apple is Using Open Source Software to Defeat Microsoft Without Appearing to Do So

Status: [CLOSED]
By Robert X. Cringely

You can learn a lot just by reading advertisements. Next week is the big MacWorld show in New York, and I have been doing some intelligence gathering simply by reading the catalogs and Web sites of Mac-specific retailers. Of course, Apple will be introducing newer, faster models — that's a given — but recent discounting of the 350-MHz G-3 Mac with an internal DVD drive suggests to me that we'll suddenly see DVD across a much broader (and faster) range of desktop Macs.

The most interesting ads of all, though, are for plain-Jane 233-MHz iMacs for $898 or some even lower price if you call the 800 number. These iMacs are refurbished and have been selling in all the catalogs at this low price for months with no end in sight. In an era of just-in-time inventory and build-to-order computers, how can Apple have so many of these refurbished iMacs on hand? The answer is simple. Back when the iMac was introduced, I predicted reliability problems, much to the consternation of the MacFaithful, who denounced me as a heretic. Now we have thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of refurbished iMacs hitting the market. These are the iMacs I predicted would fail. Apple instituted a 100 percent test policy and diverted the bad boxes before they reached customers. Now those early iMacs have finally been repaired and Apple is quietly dumping them.

So I was right that Apple would have quality problems, but wrong that Apple customers would share those problems. In this case, Apple did exactly the right thing.

The two other expected announcements at MacWorld will be a larger iMac with a 17-inch screen and a consumer notebook variously rumored to be called the iMate or the iNote. Either way, the Is have it that this low-cost model, which was supposed to have been introduced way back in January, will extend to road warriors the iMac's dramatic popularity.

The best performance of MacWorld is, of course, that of interim-CEO-for-life Steve Jobs, who will, for an hour or so, extend his reality distortion field to encompass a whole room of people. The last time I saw one of these exhibitions of mind control, Steve made otherwise responsible adults swoon over the concept of iMacs in "delicious" colors.

Steve may or may not make some of the new hardware announcements, but he'll for sure do his standard demo of MacOS X, the long-awaited total rewrite of the MacOS for the new millennium. He'll wow the crowd and we'll drool for the upgrade, when and if it finally appears. But there is one aspect of MacOS X that I think Jobs won't be pushing, though I wish he would. In fact, that's why I am writing this column a week earlier than I normally would, hoping (for a change) to influence history.

Pay attention, Steve.

Last year, Apple announced that it would be opening some of its source code to third party developers. At the time, the company was talking strictly about bits of AppleTalk and QuickTime that it wanted the open source (that is, Linux and the like) community to help extend. The so-called open source license offered at the time was a shame, and I said so in a column. It was a matter of Steve Jobs playing Tom Sawyer and trying to get the rest of us to paint his fence.

To Apple's credit, the restrictive license was amended over time to something much more Linux-like. Going further, Apple announced that it would open-source under this new license some key components of MacOS X, specifically a low-level subset of the OS called Darwin, as well as the MacOS X-based QuickTime Streaming Server and OpenPlay, a networking protocol aimed at gamers. Developers can download Darwin for free and mess with it all they like.

Darwin is not the MacOS. It includes the Mach microkernel and a lot of other Unix-like code that add up to the software required for a good server, but hardly enough to build consumer Mac clones around. To do that, you'd need the higher-level parts of MacOS X (Classic, Carbon, Cocoa, and Quartz) that Apple has quite specifically kept to itself.

So why make the effort? Why did Apple bother open-sourcing this particular code? The simple reason is to harness the testosterone of the Linux and FreeBSD communities, but the real reason is to attack Microsoft.

Linux is already taking what would have been at least $2 billion in annual sales away from Windows NT. Microsoft spokespeople have said as much, citing Linux as a major threat to NT. Poor Microsoft.Apple needs Microsoft, which absolutely dominates the Macinbtosh application market. So even Steve Jobs, who hates with a passion the whole idea of Microsoft, can't publicly oppose the boys and girls in Redmond. But open-sourcing is politically correct. Even Microsoft has talked of doing it.

Darwin is the most audacious act of Steve Jobs' audacious career. No, it can't be used to make Mac clones, but it can be used to make very Mac-friendly servers on virtually any hardware platform. There has been some debate about whether Darwin can be recompiled to run on Intel or Alpha or some other processor family. It can be and will. Expect these servers to begin appearing in months, going head-to-head with NT, Unix, and Linux.

While this may not sound especially audacious, it becomes more clearly so when we consider the rest of Apple's open-source offering — the QuickTime Streaming Server and OpenPlay. Darwin is Apple's means of taking control of home entertainment in the 21st century.QuickTime is the only server not licensed on a per-stream basis, making it the cheapest streaming media solution other than Java, and QuickTime is faster than Java. To support real time streams, Darwin includes a real time kernel, something not available in Windows NT, Linux, or anywhere else. This is the highest-performance multimedia software the world has ever seen, and it is FREE.

Microsoft has invested more than $10 billion to ensure that its software is part of the streaming media solution for the future. But money is not an adequate apology for bad software, and in both the client and server space, Microsoft is still pushing bad software. Now Apple hurls superior software into the market that third parties will port to every possible hardware platform — not just servers, but set-top boxes, too.

"It's not me, Bill, I'm not making a penny on this," Steve will say.By embracing open source and throwing Darwin to all-comers, Apple will effectively defeat Microsoft's investment plan. In the media space Jobs covets (he is, after all, a movie mogul), he will even steal support from Linux. But the main target is clearly Microsoft, which ought to be fuming once they finally figure out what's really happening.

It's a master stroke, and I only hope Steve admits it.

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