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Can Apple Usurp Microsoft as OS King?

Posted by iTech - 2005-10-21

Apple Computer executives have said that the company will not license out its OS for Intel-based PCs, but that has not stopped speculation that Apple will pursue that strategy to go after the Microsoft Windows empire.
If Apple does -- and it would not be the first time the company has voiced denials all the way up to a product launch or a new direction -- it could make for quite a battle in the OS world.

In some ways, such a fight would harken back to the industry's early days, with  Bill Gates and  Steve Jobs duking it out for market share, but this time Apple could have several new advantages. Not only has the company raised its public profile through the iPod, but also its hardware has become more appealing to the masses rather than staying a darling of niche markets.

But that is not to say that Apple would have an easy time unseating Windows. With its colossal share of the market, Windows benefits simply by being an incumbent system. It also has had challengers before, such as BeOS and NeXT, and triumphed without much effort.

Most notably, though, analysts believe it would be tricky for Apple to pull off an effortless switch because there would be several software challenges blocking the way.

Moving Daze

Even if Apple secretly is contemplating an OS coup, it is likely that the company also is wondering how to woo Windows users and promise them minimal hassle. And that, said Gartner analyst Michael Silver, is the rub.

"Just because they use the same processor doesn't make it seamless," he said. "There would be nothing seamless about it, especially for business users."

A large company with 10,000 PCs would have 1,000 applications, Silver pointed out. And many of those applications would require Windows, which means that the cost to migrate them to Mac  OS X would be staggering.

"That's why  Linux has not taken off more than it has today," Silver said, noting that when Munich, Germany, was contemplating the switch to Linux, the city estimated it would cost 50 million euros (roughly $60 million) to migrate their applications, and even that involved some degree of Windows in the mix.

"There would be cost and complexity, and the key for many business users, the reason they wouldn't migrate, is because it would just be too much effort for very little demonstrated need," Silver added.

Stopgap Fix

If Apple did end up licensing the OS, it is likely that many companies that wanted to take advantage of such an arrangement would have to create workarounds to run its software, similar to how some might be employing Linux- and Windows-based applications in the same environment.

"It might be possible to host a whole operating environment and a complete stack of software that performs some needed function in a virtual machine that runs on another operating environment," said IDC analyst Dan Kusnetzky. "While this is workable, it may not perform well, be reliable, or be supportable for some other reason."

The approach would be more complex, and could cost more than simply having a system that supports the applications running natively on the hardware, he added.

Most likely, difficulties would abound in the same way that Linux needs special care and feeding in a heterogeneous environment.

"Just because an operating environment is available on a volume hardware platform does not necessarily mean that it will become a volume product itself," Kusnetzky noted. "It all depends upon the portfolio of applications, development tools and services available."

Armchair Speculation

Despite the fun intellectual exercise of envisioning what could happen if Apple wanted to wipe out Microsoft's OS dominance, the fact is that it is not likely to occur, said Forrester Research analyst Ted Schadler.

"It would fly in the face of Apple's core business model, which is making and selling hardware," he said. Apple has risen above struggles in the past by sticking to such a model, Schadler noted, and so far has not placed much emphasis on the Intel switch after the initial flurry of attention.

"Apple is not looking at the chip for differentiation," said Schadler. "It's counting on its hardware and software for that. If anything, it's taking the line of thinking that the chip inside makes little difference to the quality of the computing experience."

The only change Apple might make because of Intel does not have to do with the OS and potential licensing, Schadler said, but rather, because Intel builds chips that work more effectively in portable devices, it could cause Apple to go into new directions with laptops or even handhelds.

"Apple will keep doing what it's doing, and most likely that means they hope Windows users will make the switch on their own," said Schadler. "But they're not going to tear down what they've built to try to conquer the OS world."

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