Mac OS X: An Apple a Day keeps the Penguins Away?

By Timothy R. Butler | Posted at 6:33 PM

Today marks our first anniversary here at Open for Business. For the occasion, Editor-in-Chief Timothy R. Butler considers one of the most prominent arguments against adopting a Free Software desktop: Apple's Mac OS X.

Since it first surfaced a few years ago, it has been in vogue to suggest that Mac OS X fulfills the promise that Linux first made - a user friendly, powerful UNIX desktop. Linux is free now to go off and play with the other servers; the UNIX desktop has arrived and Linux need not apply for the job. It can be said with complete certainty that Mac OS X is indeed a very user-friendly environment, and enjoyable to work with as well. But does it really displace Linux's desktop hopes?

In a word, “no.”

As always there are the naysayers who insist that Linux will never make it to the desktop because of that other system known as Windows. In this piece, I want to focus on the assertions of another group, the one that insists that Mac OS X is really as close to desktop Linux as we need or want, and that we should support it rather than hedging bets on its Penguin-friendly cousin. I think there are several problems that will keep OS X from this supposed coronation to the throne of the Linux desktop, which I will enumerate below.

Myth #1: You'll be Free, Hackers

One of Linux's qualities that has often been cited for its success is the freedom provided under the GNU GPL license. In our haste to find a Microsoft alternative, it is often forgotten that Apple's software offers little gains in freedom over that of the Redmond giant. In fact, Apple's record of cooperation with the Free Software community, and that of the computer industry in general, is dismal at best. Many times, the Cupertino-based company has gleefully slapped down lawsuits on its most enthusiastic supporters, and where it has not actually shuffled the papers, it has still often threatened to do so (for instance, with the various Aqua-like themes).

While it can be argued that Mac OS X is open source since its foundation (Darwin) is, we must remember that none of the really interesting additions Apple has made to the system are under a Free Software license - or any public access source code license at all. Thus, those looking to escape the controlling tendencies of Microsoft should look beyond Apple for the solution. If you want a system that you are truly free to do whatever you want with for the benefit of your company, you need a system that provides all of its major components under Free licenses.

Can Apple eliminate Linux's desktop hopes?
Myth #2: Mac is the Intelligent Choice

Love it or hate it, Intel's x86 architecture has become the defacto standard platform for virtually all computers outside of embedded devices. With Apple being firmly entrenched in the PowerPC architecture, it is highly unlikely we will ever see Mac OS X on Intel, regardless of whether such a port exists internally at Apple.

Even if we suppose that Apple will decide to be wild and release a port, it would be highly unlikely it would run on your existing machine. As a hardware company at its core, it would make little sense for Apple to release Mac OS X on the x86 unless they could somehow require proprietary components to be added to the architecture. Either way, it is clear that Apple is about as ready to move to a completely open architecture as it is to release all of OS X's code under a Free Software license.

Arguably, this is an Achilles' heal for the fruity operating system, as Macintosh hardware is generally priced at a premium, and even if it were not, moving over to an entirely new architecture is very costly. Worse, by being only available on one platform, Mac OS can't tie together all the functions of an enterprise - such as legacy systems - like Linux can.

Myth #3: It's Kreative, Dependable, and Easy

Many people are still convinced that the Linux desktop is hard to use, however ease-of-use is another point that should not be chalked up to oh-es-ten just yet. The later iterations of KDE 2.x and the new 3.x series both have made major leaps towards unique, intuitive interfaces; and GNOME 2.2 promises to bring choice to the selection of well polished, robust Linux desktops.

As an example, lets consider a typical Linux installation. Recently in OfB Labs, I did an install of MandrakeSoft's new Mandrake Linux 9.0. Going with the predetermined settings for everything, I got an extremely stable, perfectly working system setup in a way that any newbie would have no trouble getting started with. Did I mention this was on a laptop even?

In some ways, getting started with Linux is actually easier than getting started with a new installation of Mac OS X. A typical Linux distribution will install virtually all of the software you need right out of the box. How many other operating systems provide an office suite (, graphics package (The Gimp), financial management application (GNUCash), and even high-end multimedia editing (Broadcast 2000), right out of the box? Eliminating the usual need to install a bunch of additional software after the operating system is setup makes Linux very friendly to those uncomfortable with installing software, and also makes a system administrator's job of deploying the system a piece of cake.

Myth #4: The Microsoft Factor

So, if openness, architecture support, and easiness are not all clear wins for the Macintosh, is there anything else we might be able to use as the coup de grâce against the Linux desktop? Well, clearly, Macintosh seems to have an upper hand with Microsoft Office - after all, Microsoft has a fully functional version of the suite for the Mac. Nevertheless, don't hand over the crown to Apple yet, hot shot. With the availability of CrossOver Office from Codeweavers, you can run the more popular Windows version of the suite under Linux. Why settle for the perennially late Mac port?

As you can see, there are many myths as to why Steve Job's company has the upper hand on the desktop, but none of them can hold, ahem, aqua. Quite frankly, most indications seem to point to the Linux desktop being in a much better position than that of Apple's system. Furthermore, from a financial perspective, Linux can offer something very real that Mac OS X cannot: low cost of deployment. With the price of a Linux preloaded PC from retailing giant Wal-Mart costing as little as $200, the said units are somewhere in the range of six hundred dollars south of the cheapest iMac.

Fact: There are Disadvantages
It is true that there are some disadvantages to a Linux desktop. For instance, the Macintosh does offer a wide variety of software from companies like Adobe, Macromedia, and Quark that simply are not available for Linux. However similar applications are appearing on the Free Software horizon, which means that even these specialty genres will soon be filled with quality software that costs nothing.

Admittedly, polish is another thing in Apple's favor. While the Linux desktop already is quite well done, there is no doubt that OS X is still the slickest operating system out there nor that it has some really intuitive features. I am certainly not arguing with that. Yet, for most uses I would have a hard time saying that this system really has any advantage that will increase the ROI of your deployment, and if there was, you could easily use some of your deployment savings to pay for the work needed to add that functionality.

Does that mean there is no reason to deploy Mac boxes? Not necessarily, especially when related to multimedia and publishing, the venerable Macintosh will continue to be the right choice for the foreseeable future. However, for larger deployments (such as company wide or department wide ones), it is safe to say Linux is the best choice in most cases.

To answer my own question, then, I think we can safely say an Apple does not keep away a penguin. The Linux desktop's day to shine is arriving, and Apple Computer simply is not in a position to take Tux's well-deserved spotlight away.

Tim, and the rest of the Open for Business team, would like to thank-you for your support over our first year. We look forward to continuing to serve you in the coming years. Thank-you.

Timothy R. Butler is Editor-in-Chief of Open for Business. You can reach him at tbutler@uninetsolutions. com.