Apple and Sun: a most unlikely duo

Like many who heard the news this week, I have a few opinions on what the short and long-term implications for both Apple and the industry will be as a result of Steve’s decision. But I’m not going to reveal them, at least not now. My immediate attention is draw to the interesting ambitions of Sun Microsystems’ President and COO Jonathan Schwartz.

In his open letter to Steve Jobs, Jonathan invites Apple to adopt Solaris 10 as the platform for next-generation Intel-based Macs. Although Jonathan was being quite shrewd in suggesting Apple might switch (no pun intended) to Intel on the basis of a rumour, I think he’ll sooner witness Dell ship an AMD-based box than Apple adopt Solaris, for a few good reasons.

As Steve mentioned during the keynote, Mac OS X has been “leading a secret double life” for the past five years. So project ‘Marklar’, as rumoured a number of years ago, indeed does exist. Big deal? Not really. Let’s scratch the surface a bit to find out how easy the port would have been for Apple’s talented software engineers.

Even before the OpenDarwin project began three years ago, Apple released the source code to Darwin 1.3.1 which was the underbelly of Mac OS X 10.0 – yes, the first release five years ago. And that version was also available as an x86 binary so anyone could download and run it on an Intel machine. With that in mind, let’s look at Apple’s open source stack to see which packages have not only been ported to Intel but are being actively developed on Intel (read x86)…

Mach kernel – Intel
BSD subsystem – Intel
Bash – Intel
GCC – Intel
GNU file utilities – Intel
Apache – Intel
Postfix – Intel
Webcore (fork of KHTML) – Intel
X11 – Intel
OpenGL – Intel
CUPS – Intel
GIMP-Print – Intel
MySQL – Intel
Samba – Intel
Cyrus – Intel
OpenSSH – Intel
PHP – Intel
Perl – Intel
Python – Intel
Jboss – Intel
Jabber – Intel
Emacs – Intel
Vim – Intel

So there you have it, a list of ‘Intel compatible’ software within Mac OS X. There is more – and I hate to think of the amount of open source code hidden inside OS X’s proprietary eye candy – but surely that’s enough. My point being that Apple’s ‘port’ of OS X to Intel seems more of a case of compiling all the x86 software and then porting the GUI on top of that. But as Steve revealed both architectures are from a common code base anyway.

What does that have to do with Solaris? Well, nothing for now and it probably never will. Why on Earth would Apple now – after supporting two architectures with a common open source code base – take an abrupt left turn and port all of this software to the Solaris kernel and subsystem? What would Apple gain? A bunch of high-end features that it’s hardware doesn’t even support?

I’m not sure why Jonathan would even suggest Apple should support Solaris now when it has done such a good job with BSD and GPL code. Remember, when Apple started working on OS X, x86 Solaris was proprietary and lacked the vibrant development community FreeBSD has enjoyed since its inception. It’s ironic that A-UX – Apple’s System V-based Unix well before OS X – was dropped in favour of a BSD code base, while Sun dropped its BSD-based SunOS in favour of System V which now underpins Solaris.

Rather than being future collaborators, I’d go so far as to say that Apple and Sun will become even more competitive as the former begins to encroach on the latter’s turf.

By the way, I’m glad you appreciate innovation Jonathan, just be wary that inventing may be closer to counterfeiting than we are led to believe… 😉


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