How Apple Can Move to x86 Successfully

Various sources indicate that Steve Jobs plans to announce Apple's migration of their computing platform to x86 during this coming week's WWDC, after decades of Apple relying on Motorola/IBM to provide their chipset.

Pundits claim that, as with the move away from Apple's proprietary Macintosh operating system to one based on the open source FreeBSD/Mach kernel, this architectural shift will cause additional attrition in the Apple faithful, who will simply abandon the platform rather than re-invest in the new x86 OS and software.

While this certainly may be the case, there is one move that Apple could make to not only prevent attrition, but substantially grow their user base - not only in the standard Apple strongholds of the artistic community, home user and educational markets, but in the enterprise as well.

In fact, if Apple does not make this move, their computing platform is most certainly doomed by a move to x86.

I believe that Apple will do to Microsoft what Microsoft once did to Netscape: Apple is planning on giving their operating system away for free.

Without taking this step, their x86 migration strategy puts Apple's Macintosh in the same arena as Windows and the various Linux distros. If as a consumer or company, I can run Apple's OS on any computer, why would I purchase an Apple computer - which have traditionally been more innovative, though more expensive than their Windows counterparts - versus, say, a Dell or HP computer?

For that matter, why would I purchase Apple's OSX when I can simply download any number of Linux server or desktop focused operating systems for free? Sure, the same level of functionality is not necessarily present in SuSE or Fedora as in XP or OSX, but if my primary reason for installing another OS is to get away from the expensive, bug-ridden, insecure Windows platform, why would I take a financial risk with an operating system that is an unknown quantity when I can test the non-MS waters with a Linux freebie?

Apple's value proposition has and always will be the functionality of the software that runs on top of their smooth, well-oiled operating system. Additionally, with the introduction of their wildly successful iPod music players, their core business is moving away from providing an alternative platform to Windows towards distribution of consumer devices and media content.

Giving away a fully stocked version of OSX - complete with the iLife suite of software - gives impetus to the legions of dissatisfied Windows users to download, install, and use the Mac operating system. It also gives Apple a larger potential consumer base for their iPod and other future consumer electronics products, paving the way for the software that drives Apple's growing media distribution business.

This strategy is directly in line with releasing a version of iTunes for Windows. Apple cares less about people using their computers as they do people purchasing their iPods and buying songs - and in the future, movies, television shows, etc.

Now, this is not to say I believe that Apple will make the proprietary portions of OSX open source. As with the current arrangement, it behooves Apple to continue contributing to the Darwin/FreeBSD camps, while maintaining closed source areas of OSX. In this manner, they can prevent Microsoft or the FreeBSD/Darwin folks from using or porting Apple's successful software over to other operating systems. Not that Apple doesn't want their software to run on alternate OSes - quite the contrary, as proliferation works to their advantage - they do, however, want to retain control over how their software reaches customers. Open sourcing the currently proprietary bits of the OS, or of the iLife suite, incurs the risk of Apple losing control over their own empire.

A free OSX that runs atop x86 also serves to rapidly grow the pool of developer talent writing software for the platform. That in turn increases the software offerings, which reduces the pain that consumers or companies experience when considering a migration.

From an enterprise standpoint, should Apple both port OSX to x86 as well as provide the OS for free, suddenly Apple has a compelling argument for companies to wholesale switch their desktops and x86-based servers over to OSX. Most of the core software companies need to do business already runs on a Macintosh - though to date the argument to switch to Apple comes with a $3,000 price tag per user. Under this new paradigm, the cost to switch over is only the cost of replacing the Microsoft Office software (or, replacing it with the OSX compatible OpenOffice) - Apple's OS will run on your current Dell or HP computer, and it's available for no cost. Apple only then needs to get more heavily into the services business, and offer to provide robust desktop support (for a fee, of course) for the operating system to its new corporate user base to make this vision a reality.