Friday, June 10, 2005

More on Intel processors, Macs, and the future of Linux

This post is in response to an opinion piece by Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols in eWeek. This is Vaughan-Nichols second editorial on the topic and he's trying to defend his position that the Linux desktop is in danger from Macs with Intel inside.

Some quotes from the piece, followed by a response:
"One of the most common themes I've been hearing is that Apple will not—will not, I tell you!—be letting its precious operating system ship on anything except its own branded hardware.

Yes, that appears to be what Apple is planning, but I don't think it'll be able to pull it off.

The Intel-based PC architecture is an open one. How is Apple going to keep people from installing Mac OS on non-Mac PCs? Proprietary firmware? A BIOS, a la Phoenix Technologies' TrustedCore, which can enforce DRM (digital rights management)? Pick a method and I foresee hackers cheerfully breaking it."

Whatever mechanism Apple uses to require Apple hardware can be reverse engineered. This is a fairly obvious concern to Apple, I think they just might have a solution ready to go. One method that would be hard to emulate could use a small chip embedded on all Apple motherboards that the Mac OS would query during boot up. No response from the chip, no Mac OS. And in case someone patched the query checker, run md5sum on the binary to verify it's unmodified.

It's entirely possible Steve Jobs has decided that it's time for the Macintosh to become an OS and Apple chooses a weaker method of hardware authentication. I hope not, a principle of the Macintosh design is tight hardware and software integration - that's part of what makes it such a great user experience.
"I've also had people tell me that they don't think Apple will have as much trouble with device drivers as Linux has, either because Apple will use only a small subset of all the possible equipment you can stick on a PC, or because Apple will be able to get better deals from hardware vendors.

There's no question that Linux still has a long, long way to go with device drivers. It's just that Macs have even farther. Macs support only a very limited range of hardware.

In the past, if the equipment wasn't built by Apple, or had its making overseen by Apple, the odds were the device wouldn't work on a Mac. Linux still has big driver problems. Mac OS on Intel will have enormous, but conquerable, driver problems.

On Intel designs, Apple will have to contend with a much wider variety of external equipment. From Webcams to scanners to, heck, even mice, Apple will have to deal with tens of thousands of new devices. Even if "Mactels" turn out to be hermetically sealed boxes, Apple and friends are going to be spending a lot of time working on device drivers. And, lest we forget, historically, Apple hasn't gotten along well with equipment vendors."

First off, since when is Linux device driver support poor? I can plug any old mouse into a machine running a desktop Linux OS, and it works just fine. For that matter, I can connect many digital cameras, printers,
mobile phones, PDAs, video cards, sound cards, monitors, digital I/O boards and they all work. Oh, and in all but the obvious cases (video cards, sound cards) Mac OS has the same level of support. Obviously, MS Windows has the best device driver support since most hardware manufacturers consider it to be the most important platform due to the install base.

On Intel designs, Apple will have to contend with the same variety of external equipment as they do now.
Using Intel processors and chipsets has nothing to do with, for example, Apple choosing to only provide drivers for iSight and no other webcams. It's technically possible to use third party webcams on a Mac, but Apple doesn't provide it.
"I've also been hearing from a lot of people who insist that it doesn't matter what Apple does, since Linux will survive no matter what the companies do. Would someone please send these people in their basements the memo from a few years ago that Linux is a business operating system and not just a hobby?"

Linux has support from commercial interests, but it didn't start out that way. The term Linux, as it used in your piece, refers to Linux-based operating systems. There are both commercial and non-commercial Linux distributions, therefore Linux is not a business operating system. On top of that, some contributions to Linux and related software are made from hobbyists and many are from developers that started out as hobbyists.
"So, to get back to the original point of my column, if you want Linux to play a serious role on the desktop in the years to come, the time is now to get serious about creating an outstanding Linux desktop operating system. Mac OS X is coming to Intel and, unless things change, it's likely to be unchallenged as the best Intel-based desktop operating system around."

I don't understand the importance of Linux dominating the desktop world. Users will choose the best (that they know of) tool for the job.


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