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Apple's OS X eyes Linux

Having dramatically reduced pricing, Apple Computer is counting on its new Mac OS X Server software to snare both Linux developers and Linux customers.

Apple Computer is counting on its new Mac OS X Server software to snare both Linux developers and customers.

The company will go part way toward embracing the "open source" programming philosophy when interim chief executive Steve Jobs today introduces the next version of its Macintosh operating system for computer servers and possibly details on the next version of the operating system for its popular personal computers. If the program is successful, the result will be both a higher-performance operating system and more developers on board.

Many observers say that Linux has captured the efforts of the "alternative" developer set, drawing their talents away from Mac OS and other alternatives to Microsoft Windows. OS X Server does have something of an open source core, but it also has lots of proprietary Apple software on top.

"They're trying to hit Linux right between the eyes," said one source.

In addition, Apple will announce Mac OS X Server's price has been dramatically reduced from the $995 price tag announced in January. The new cost, depending on configuration, will be less than $300 to less than $600. Mac OS X (as in the roman numeral for ten) Server was originally scheduled for release in February.

Linux is the foremost example of the open source model, in which any programmers may take a shot at improving the operating system by tackling the software's original programming instructions. Favorable changes are folded back into the general release, and anyone may redistribute the software.

Though Apple will try to recapture some of that spirit, it won't be completely open source, since opening up the source code of all Apple's software would enable Mac clones on any hardware, one source said. Instead, the company will give lots of support to developers who stick to Apple hardware.

The Cupertino, California, computer maverick is holding its cards close to its chest, declining to offer specifics on today's announcement. According to sources, however, open source luminaries will join Jobs on stage.

The blended approach isn't unprecedented. Silicon Graphics has stated it will make parts of its high-end Unix operating system, called Irix, available as open source. Sun Microsystems has opened up source code for some of its key technologies, though it still controls distribution. Sun also is considering offering parts of its Solaris operating system under its Community Source License.

Other notable open source efforts include the Mozilla effort to develop Netscape's future Web browser and the Apache Web server, which Apple will ship with OS X Server.

Meanwhile, Apple is also pitching OS X's low cost. When Jobs announced the server software in January, he remarked, "Our customers can now get a standards-based Internet server for under $5,000 that is faster than other servers costing several times as much."

But as Apple moves up from the desktop to servers, the competition expands. Though Linux runs on many different chips, including the PowerPC chip found in Apple systems, it's particularly popular on Intel-based machines, and many big-name computer companies have lined up behind Linux as a way to provide inexpensive Internet infrastructure machines.

Mac OS X Server has its technological roots in NeXT, a Jobs's startup that Apple purchased to reinvigorate its operating system offerings. Apple began adapting the NeXT operating system into an Apple-specific version called Rhapsody, now called Mac OS X Server.

The foundation of Mac OS X Server is the Mach microkernel, the part of the operating system that talks to the hardware. Atop that, the system looks like BSD Unix, a flavor of Unix originally developed at the University of California-Berkeley.

The release of OS X Server marks the beginning of Apple's two-tiered OS strategy where there is a "Pro" and "Consumer" version of the OS, much like Microsoft's Windows NT and Windows serve different markets.

Mac OS X--a separate product from Mac OS X Server--will be based on the technology in OS X Server, but it will be better able to run current Mac programs. Mac OS X is not slated for widespread release until at least the third quarter of 1999, so Apple said it wanted to give its high-end customers an early shot at using the software via OS X server.