A Multiplatform Future For The Mac?


Solution providers and analysts said Apple's move to Intel opens up some intriguing possibilities: Would Intel-based Macs be able to run Microsoft Windows and Linux? And would the Intel version of Unix-based Mac OS X--code-named Leopard--be able to run on non-Apple computers powered by Intel processors?

The answer to both questions likely will be no, at least in the short term, VARs and analysts said. But they didn't rule out either eventuality because of the huge market implications for Apple. Both scenarios would open the Windows PC space--especially the lucrative corporate market--to the Mac platform, potentially lifting Apple's 2 percent to 3 percent computer market share into the double digits, they said. What's more, if Leopard were permitted to run on PCs, Apple could reverse its historic decision to not license its operating system on other manufacturers' computers.

"Down the road, I think we'll see--slowly but surely--lower prices, more compatibility and better peripherals [for the Mac]," said George Swords, marketing manager at PowerMacPac, a Portland, Ore.-based Apple specialist. "Who knows? Maybe with this [transition to Intel] we'll have a box that can run Unix, OS X and Windows, without a translator. That would be good for the whole industry."

The lack of a detailed road map for the Intel migration has industry observers mulling the possibilities, given Apple's propensity to make a splash with new products and technologies. At the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference earlier this month, CEO Steve Jobs said the Cupertino, Calif.-based company plans have all new Macs running Intel processors by the end of 2007, with the first Intel-based products hitting the market in about a year. Jobs didn't say which Mac products would be the first Intel machines. An Apple spokeswoman later told CRN the company won't comment on specific products for the Intel transition.

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"The big question is how proprietary the [Intel] machines they come out with are going to be," said Ed Crelin, president and CEO of MacInsight, a Wallingford, Vt.-based IT consultancy specializing in Apple solutions. "My other question is whether Apple allows [the Leopard] OS X to run on a Dell right out of the box, because that would be a huge marketing play."

That very notion emerged last week. An article published Thursday by Fortune magazine said Dell Chairman Michael Dell wrote in an e-mail that he would be open to offering the Mac OS to his company's customers. A Dell spokesman confirmed the e-mail but declined further comment. An Apple spokeswoman said the company has no plans to offer OS X on other manufacturers' computers.

Traditionally, Apple has frowned on the idea of licensing its OS for Mac clones, instead touting its tightly integrated hardware and OS as providing a more seamless, user-friendly experience than Wintel PCs. So the chances of Apple licensing OS X to other computer makers and/or enabling Windows and Linux to run on Intel-based Macs are remote, according to solution providers and analysts. Ross Rubin, an analyst at The NPD Group, said in a report that Apple could use a proprietary chipset to prevent Intel Macs from running other operating systems. Likewise, Apple could use Trusted Platform Module technology to ensure that the x86-based version of OS X will run only on its hardware, according to research firm Gartner. And to run on PCs, Leopard would need to support the menagerie of components and peripherals geared for the Wintel world, Smith Barney analyst Tom Berquist wrote in a report.

"I don't anticipate that Apple is going to separate hardware and software.," said Michael Oh, president of Tech Superpowers, a Boston-based Apple solution provider. "I think they're going to sell a box with an Intel processor, but it's not going to be built to run Windows. You're not going to be able to just pop in a CD and install Windows on it. But that doesn't necessarily mean they're not going to be able to support Windows in some sort of interesting way."

"You still may have to buy a Virtual PC equivalent to run something like Outlook for the PC or QuickBooks for the PC, but it would have to do a lot less work," Oh explained. "That would have extremely interesting implications for the enterprise market. From a performance standpoint, if you can run a Windows-based, [vertical] industry application with all its features at 90 percent of the speed you had on a Windows box, suddenly you open up a whole new set of people who could potentially switch [to the Mac]."

If Apple aims to target the Wintel installed base with the Intel-flavored OS X down the road, it could do so in two ways, Smith Barney's Berquist wrote. Apple could enable dual booting, in which OS X and Windows would sit in separate hard-drive partitions and users could select their startup OS. Yet that setup would mean Windows files couldn't be opened when OS X is running and vice versa, he noted. A better option might be a virtualization solution that first loads a "micro kernel operating system" and then OS X and Windows, which would run at the same time, Berquist said in his report. Such a scenario ostensibly would let users switch between both operating systems and be able to run files created by either platform, although that setup might be confusing for users, he said.

"The best world that we could see would be a box that can run Unix, Linux, OS X and Windows all simultaneously," PowerMacPac's Swords said.

Leopard is slated for release in roughly the same time frame as Longhorn, the code name for the next-generation Windows. That timetable could yield an interesting platform face-off as businesses and consumers compare the latest OS X with the latest Windows, solution providers and analysts said. If that's what eventually unfolds, VARs could play a key role for Apple, according to MacInsight's Crelin.

"If they're really going to start banging heads with Microsoft and start getting 20 percent to 30 percent market share potentially, they'll need the channel," he said.