Apple pulls switch to convert Linux fans to Mac

BY DAVID SPEAKMAN

Apple Computer Inc. says reports of its imminent demise are, once again, premature.

With a newly-installed base of
5 million users of its OS X operating system, Apple claims it’s the largest seller of UNIX-based computers worldwide and disputes reports its market share is eroding.

Contrary to Apple’s assertions, a December research report by Al Gillen of IDC of Framingham, Mass., calculates that Linux-based personal computers (a derivative of UNIX) make up 4 percent of the desktop marketplace, passing Apple Macintosh’s 2 percent (25 million users) and landing in second place behind Microsoft Corp.’s Windows.

“If you count the number of desktops out there, any Linux provider would like to get 4 percent of that,” says Joseph Eckert, spokesman for Oakland-based SuSE Inc., the second-largest Linux software company worldwide.

The debate may be simply semantics. Apple touts it’s not a victim of Linux. Rather it expects to convert more Linux users to the Macintosh platform with a new strategy offering programmers free operating-system software critical to creating Linux-based applications used by a wide range of professions.

Brian Kroll, Apple’s senior marketing director for OS X, says “I think [IDC] is confused.” IDC researcher Gillen did not return telephone calls requesting an interview.

Kroll claims 5 million Macintosh users have adopted OS X since last year’s debut, moving Apple ahead of IBM and Santa Clara’s Sun Microsystems Inc. as the largest seller of UNIX-based computers.

The “X” in Apple’s OS X has two meanings. It represents the Roman numeral 10 version number and is programmer shorthand for the UNIX-based operating systems such as Linux and Sun’s Solaris.

Apple executives say their newest operating system attracts people who in the past didn’t look at Macintosh computers. The days of Apple being seen as a company dependent on graphic designers and publishers are no more, Kroll says.

“I think you can say its over — definitely,” he says.

The UNIX technology behind OS X allows the Cupertino company to gain acceptance with professionals in bioinformatics, government, animation and developers of Linux-based scripting applications, he says. In bioinformatics, for example, Apple began making inroads after programmers adjusted the popular UNIX/Linux BLAST program, used in gene sequencing to decipher DNA, to run on OS X.

In the world of computer operating systems, the availability of new and useful applications is the difference between life and death.

Last week Apple began offering a free, open source X11 that’s critical to many Linux users for Mac OS X. Apple’s new X11 is an operating system environment designed to run alongside and integrate with Macintosh OS X operating system.

The availability of X11 on the Macintosh platform will accelerate Linux-to-Mac application conversion and attract new Linux and UNIX-based applications, Kroll believes.

“Suddenly [Linux] applications that were not available before will just show up,” Kroll says. “Our core is open source. This is a huge change from Apple’s previous strategy.”

Linux Journal Senior Editor Doc Searls agrees. In a Jan. 12 report he writes, “while the obvious purpose of the [X11] move is to give Apple parity with other UNIXes, the more important purpose is to allow easier porting of [or UNIX-based] applications to OS X.”

Apple counts on its version of X11 being declared best of breed in the open-source market and attracting programmers — particularly UNIX users who wouldn’t have given a Mac a second glance a few years ago — to drive up computer sales.

With Apple’s two new Powerbook laptop computers offering mobility to
UNIX users, Linux fans may be featured in Apple’s next “Switch” ad campaign.