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Apple embarks on MacOS X for Intel project

It's pinch of salt time, but it's not as daft a rumour as you might think

Apple may indeed be preparing a full x86 version of MacOS X, according a source cited by Ars Technica.

The Ars report's writer mentions bumping into a old programming chum who claimed that Apple recently approached him to join the team porting MacOS X over to the Intel platform.

MacOS X's core OS, Darwin, derived from BSD Unix, is an open source project and Apple has noted in the past that it can be compiled for x86 systems. Running it is, of course, another matter, and in any case Apple has always said it's keeping MacOS X's 'crown jewels' - the Aqua user interface, Quartz 2D graphics system, and the Classic, Carbon and Cocoa APIs - to itself.

Ars' trusted source claims Apple is taking all those components and migrating them to Intel.

Of course, this shouldn't surprise anyone. It makes sense for Apple to run a research effort to see how portable its upcoming OS actually is, if only because the company needs to keep its options open, particularly given Motorola's ongoing problems shipping high clock-speed PowerPC processors.

For the same reason, Apple might well want to get MacOS X up and running on Intel silicon simply to show its PowerPC partner that if push does indeed come to shove, it can ditch Motorola and move in with AMD or even Chipzilla itself.

Intellectual exercise or carrot-and-stick for Motorola, this still doesn't mean Apple is actually going to ship MacOS X for Intel. There's certainly no indication of that here. Indeed, there are some very strong reasons why it wouldn't want to. The Mac maker would certainly need to be sure that MacOS X for Intel wouldn't cannibalise its hardware sales, as the availability of the OS running on a 1.5GHz AMD Athlon box might well do.

Apple will only seriously consider shipping MacOS X on Intel if it generates an extra revenue stream (possible) or the combined sales of the two versions of the operating system create more revenue than the PowerPC version plus hardware (very unlikely).

We say 'possible' for the former because MacOS X's key applications will all be PowerPC binaries, and thus MacOS X for Intel would be starting out with almost no third-party software support, making it of little use to Apple's traditional user base, but could would as bait for techies and corporate evaluators willing to buy an OS there's little practical use for.

Again, that would provide a warning to Motorola, and if the chip-maker fails to deliver, Apple can migrate to x86, having provided a platform for app developers to work with in the hope that by the time it needs to move across, it can give its users a decent line in apps. Either that or fast enough x86 CPUs that it can make PowerPC emulation work well enough to its users to buy into to the plan, as per the 680x0-to-PowerPC transition.

PowerPC is only one of Apple's product differentiators and - pace all the PowerPC proponents out there - it's the least important. Apple relies more strongly on its industrial design and the MacOS than it does on PowerPC. The former is platform independent and, if Apple is indeed porting MacOS X to x86, so is that factor.

All pure speculation, we'd like to point out, but technically feasible. Is Apple porting MacOS X to Intel? Yes, we reckon it is. Is Apple planning to make it available to the public? No, we don't think so. Is it going to use the port to migrate to x86 hardware? No, but it's nice to know it has the option is it really, really needs to. ®

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Ars Technica's story is here

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