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Weekly Column

Native Speaker: There May Be an End-run for Apple Around Windows After All

Status: [CLOSED]
By Robert X. Cringely
bob@cringely.com

Dave Winer, in his NerdTV interview several months back, said that he viewed his software developer job as giving customers whatever they want. It wasn't his job to say "no" to customers, but rather to say "yes," adding features and capabilities as needed to delight the people who were ultimately paying Dave's bills. It is an enlightened and unusual position to take, especially for an engineer, because engineers typically say something can't be done at all before they eventually say that doing it is trivial. Dave, who has plenty of ego in his own right, claims to have eliminated ego in his quest for customer delight. I hope he has. But even if Dave, himself, hasn't reached that level of Nirvana, he presents an interesting question of how best to give the customer what he or she says they want? In this, our third consecutive week of, "What the heck is Apple really doing with Windows?" we can try to ask this same question about Apple and see if there is an obvious answer emerging. I think there is.

To recap, Apple has now officially endorsed the idea of people running Windows on their MacIntel computers using a dual boot loader called Boot Camp. I wrote last week that drunken Microsoft engineers had confirmed that Vista would run on Mac hardware and Apple might even become a Windows OEM like John Dvorak has been predicting. But I also wrote last week that the better route for Apple to take would be true operating system virtualization with Windows Vista running atop OS X for greater security. Finally, I wrote that OS X might be getting a new kernel now that Avie Tevenian is leaving Cupertino.

As usual, hundreds of readers weighed-in with new facts and opinions, promoting various virtualization schemes and products from Vmware, Altiris, Parallels and others. Some said virtualization wasn't even needed and that Apple might just use Wine to run Windows apps atop OS X, or maybe they'd use dual-core chips to run one OS per core. I'm beginning to think I know what's up, but first let's tackle that OS X kernel issue. Why would Apple want a new kernel?

Speed. Quite simply, a monolithic kernel like the one used in Linux or most of the other Open Source Unix clones is inherently two to three times faster for integer calculations than the Mach microkernel presently used in OS X 10.4. That's why the world hasn't embraced xServes, for example, because for simple web or database service they are slower and serve fewer users.

Apple has evidently reached the point where they need to trade claimed performance, -- typically based on floating-point operations that aren't a part of much web or database service -- for real performance.

Speeding-up performance is great, but normally a system vendor won't want to do that for older hardware, which might encourage some users to keep their old box and just add a new OS. But in this case, Apple HAS NO installed base of Intel Macs to worry about having to compete with, so speeding up the OS becomes a no-brainer, especially if it simultaneously encourages PowerPC owners to upgrade so they can share in the fun.

For this reason alone, I'm guessing that the new OS X Kernel won't be backward compatible to PowerMacs. But this is just a guess.

Speeding-up performance is important, too, if you intend to compete in a broader market and not just with your own installed base. Apple has plenty of experience emulating old operating systems to maintain compatibility, whether it was 680X0 emulation on early PowerPC machines, System 9 or Classic emulation under OS X, or even today's Rosetta on-the-fly conversion of PowerPC apps to run on MacIntel boxes. But in all three cases, the performance result was slower than users would have liked. Apple could get away with that when it was an Apple-versus-Apple contest, but now we are talking about Apples running Vista (or Windows apps) versus Dell or HP computers running native Vista. To win, Apple has to be more secure, easier to use, more solid, and not too much slower, so every hardware tweak they can find is great, thanks.

So I think it safe to say that whatever Apple's overall strategy, we're likely to see a new kernel in OS X 10.5, though the look and feel and underlying functionality shouldn't change at all. Those who think the kernel change will have to wait for 10.6 forget that Apple has had parallel versions of OS X in development for years, so who's to say they haven't had a monolithic-kernel version running in the lab since 10.3?

Apple will most likely offer more than one way to satisfy Big Business's desire to run Windows or at least Windows applications. I think Apple is sincere, for example, in their interest in allowing Apple hardware to boot straight into Vista. Not even Steve Jobs would go for months pretending to be a Vista OEM then give that up the night before. (Now watch him prove me wrong.) So for those who absolutely must have Windows, then let them have Windows, with which the new kernel ought to make performance quite snappy.

Another option for Apple would be full OS virtualization like I championed last week. I'm sure it will be available, though maybe not from Apple, since there are plenty of third party applications ready to fight for that business. These applications, probably even more than running straight Vista on Apple hardware, could use the extra oomph of a faster kernel.

But what I believe Apple will push as its core strategy is what's behind Door Number Three -- something completely different for those who may not want to run Windows Vista, but want to run Windows XP, instead.

XP is strangely compelling on Apple hardware, primarily because most users will already have XP licenses they can transfer and applications they not only own but are familiar with as well. Many people might argue, too, that OS X 10.4 (or 10.5) has many features slated to be coming in Vista, so running XP atop 10.4 could be as good or better than moving to Vista at all.

Now for the interesting part: I believe that Apple will offer Windows Vista as an option for those big customers who demand it, but I also believe that Apple will offer in OS X 10.5 the ability to run native Windows XP applications with no copy of XP installed on the machine at all. This will be accomplished not by using compatibility middleware like Wine, but rather by Apple implementing the Windows API directly in OS X 10.5.

Huh?

Wine is great, but it is also a moving target subject to Microsoft meddling. If Wine gets too good, Microsoft can "accidentally" break it at will. But Microsoft can't afford to do that with its own Windows API. The courts will no longer allow checking for a different underlying OS as Redmond did back in the days of DR-DOS. Besides, unless we are strictly talking about Microsoft apps, there isn't even much code involved here that Microsoft CAN meddle in. The wonder is, of course, that Apple could even dare to do such a thing?

Oh they can dare. Not only that, this is one dare Apple can probably get away with.

Remember Steve Jobs' first days back at Apple in 1997 as Interim-CEO-for-Life? Trying to save the company, Steve got Bill Gates to invest $150 million in Apple and promise to keep Mac Office going for a few more years in exchange for a five-year patent cross-licensing agreement? The idea in everyone's mind, of course, was that Microsoft would grab lots of Apple technology, which they probably did, and it quite specifically ended an Apple patent infringement suit against Microsoft. But I'm told that the exchange wasn't totally one-way, that Apple, in turn, got some legal right to the Windows API.

That agreement ran for five years, from August, 1997 to August 2002. Even though it has since expired, the rights it conferred at the time still lie with the respective companies. Whatever Microsoft grabbed from Apple they can still use, they just aren't able to grab anything developed since August 2002. Same for Apple using Microsoft technology like that in Office X. But Windows XP shipped October 25, 2001: 10 months before the agreement expired.

I'm told Apple has long had this running in the Cupertino lab -- Intel Macs running OS X while mixing Apple and XP applications. This is not a guess or a rumor, this something that has been demonstrated and observed by people who have since reported to me.

Think of the implications. A souped-up OS X kernel with native Windows API support and the prospect of mixing and matching Windows and Mac applications would be, for many users, the best of both worlds. There would be no copy of Windows XP to buy, no large overhead of emulation or compatibility middleware, no chance for Microsoft to accidentally screw things up, substantially better security, and no need to even take a chance on Windows Vista.

I think Dave Winer would see it as Apple saying "yes," to its customers. Alternately, it could be Apple saying, "Hell no" to Microsoft.

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