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X11: Apple's secret formula

The company is making a play to lure Unix and Linux users to its Mac OS X operating system. Will a windowing environment do the trick?

Read more about Apple and Linux
Apple Computer has quietly extended an overture to the Unix community, with the release of software that would make it easier for Unix applications to run on the Mac operating system.

During Macworld Expo earlier this month, the Cupertino, Calif.-based company posted a beta, or test, version of the X Windows system, or X11, for its Unix-based operating system, Mac OS X. The X11 software provides a standard graphical and windowing environment on Unix and Linux, and makes it possible to run software developed for one version of Unix on another version. There are about 30 million X11 users worldwide, according to industry estimates.

More important, X11 support could finally move Apple closer to a long-elusive goal: attracting more mainstream business users to the Mac. While Apple remains wildly popular among artists, film editors and the like, the company needs to expand its appeal in order to grow revenue. In its most recent quarterly earnings report, Apple forecast flat revenue for the immediate future. And some market analysts see the company's products losing ground, despite new Mac hardware and digital devices.

Apple hopes the release of X11 will spur more rapid acceptance of Mac OS X among Unix users and lead to faster porting of Unix applications to the operating system. The company said Tuesday that there have been more than 100,000 downloads of its beta since Jan. 7.

But before business users make a move, Apple needs to convince software developers to move their applications to OS X.

"It's not that Mac OS isn't compelling," said Al Gillen, an analyst with IDC. "It's a slick product. But in order to compete (for business users), you not only have to have the right price, you have to have the right applications."

X11 provides a windowing environment that lets Unix programs run on Mac OS X essentially the same way they do on their native operating systems. The tool also makes the process of developing a native OS X application faster, while allowing programs to run on a Mac in the meantime. Also, X11 running on OS X gives Unix users a portable option they might not have with Unix.

Apple believes X11 is the key to bringing Unix applications to Mac OS X. "We look at X11 as a bridge, for people that have been in that (other) world and want to come to ours and couldn't quite get there or didn't have the opportunity or bandwidth to do so," said Richard Kerris, Apple's senior director of developer technologies.

Gartner analyst Michael Silver said there are a number of reasons why a traditional Unix user might consider a move to Mac OS X. A prominent one among them, he said, is "definitely lower cost."

On hardware costs alone, Apple can make a case that switching to its systems from Unix makes sense. A Sun Blade 2000 workstation with 1GHz UltraSparc III processor, 2GB of RAM and a 73GB hard drive sells for $15,995. In comparison, a Power Mac G4 with dual 1.25GHz processors, 2GB of RAM and a 120GB hard drive sells for $4,599. The Mac also offers DVD recording and wireless networking, among other features not typically available with Unix or Linux workstations.

The beta release of X11 is free of charge, but Apple has yet to announce pricing for the software when it debuts later this year.

Unix implementations don't easily run Microsoft Office--the de facto business standard. That means many people must maintain both a Unix workstation and a PC on their desks, which represents a support headache and added cost for IS departments, analysts said. A move from Unix to Mac OS X could allow companies to consolidate systems, said Silver.

"For most folks, the ability to run Microsoft Office is a real big (incentive)," he said. Another issue is portability--Sun does not offer Unix portables. "There are lots of Apple portables to choose from, and they run Mac OS, which (with X11) would run Unix applications," said Silver.

Elusive enterprise sales
Winning over traditional Unix users is crucial if Apple hopes to increase corporate sales. The company needs to target users among enterprises or specialized businesses such as biotechnology or scientific research, say analysts, where it has a chance of gaining Unix converts.

The Unix strategy is a good way for Apple "to increase their appeal in higher ed, engineering and scientific research," said Silver.

At the same time, Apple hopes to woo Unix users experimenting with Linux to Mac OS X. The company also sees big sales potential among Hollywood content creators and other high-performance computing users, said Kerris. The X11 tool works as well with Linux as other versions of Unix.

Apple's attempt to court existing Unix users and Linux experimenters to Mac OS X comes as many traditional Unix workstation and server manufacturers, such as IBM and Sun Microsystems, have expanded their Linux strategies. They are responding to increasing customer demand for the Unix alternative, which will be showcased at this week's LinuxWorld in New York.

So far, Linux's larger appeal has been on servers, since the open-source operating system has made only negligible inroads on the desktop. In fact, this year for the first time, shipments of servers running Intel processors are expected to exceed shipments of those that use RISC (reduced instruction set computer) processors, according to Gartner Dataquest. The market research firm credited the shift largely to increased demand for Linux running on Intel-based server processors.

Gillen doesn't yet see Mac OS X as a contender in the broader Unix market, where Linux's low cost and larger number of applications appeal to many companies looking for a high-performance alternative. But Mac OS X has potential in specialized Unix markets, where the penetration of Linux has been light. Many of these markets, such as filmmaking or special effects, also play to the Mac's traditional strongholds.

"Linux comes to the front of mind as an alternative (to Unix), but Mac OS is a great alternative, too," he said.

Gillen cited Hollywood as one of the specialized markets where Mac OS could woo existing Unix users or those considering Linux. "This is still a market where Mac OS is viable," he said. "This is certainly a market where you could not count Mac OS out."

But beyond specialized markets, Gillen questioned how much share Mac OS X could gain from Unix users eyeing Linux, particularly when factoring in Linux's cost advantage.

Other versions of X11 for the Mac exist. But developers said Apple's version adds unique integration features and other elements. There are proprietary hooks into Apple's interface that permit cleaner integration with Mac OS X and other applications. For example, copy and paste between applications for X11 and Mac OS X's "Aqua" user interface is now possible with the regular keyboard shortcuts, and programs may be minimized to the dock.

With Apple's tools, Kerris said, it's possible to "use your code and recompile it on ours with the same compiler you were using on the other platform're up and running on our platform."

"An air of legitimacy"
Apple's move brings "an air of legitimacy (to X11) in the Mac world," said Ed Peterlin, an independent developer working on a volunteer project to build a Mac version of OpenOffice, the open-source business application suite. "It adds end-user credibility to X11 applications."

The Apple version of X11 delivers a 10 percent to 25 percent performance improvement, Peterlin said.

The OpenOffice group has been working on porting its open-source alternative to Microsoft Office to Mac OS X. The group hopes to release a version of OpenOffice using Apple's X11 software in the spring of 2003 and a native version supporting Aqua in the first half of 2004.

Other programs that could benefit from Apple's move include MatLab and Simulink, which are used by researchers, and GAIM, a popular instant messaging software application.

BSDMall, which distributes and helps promote FreeBSD and Darwin software, hopes to obtain a license to redistribute the Apple X11 software, said Chris Coleman of BSDMall.

"I can tell you we're talking to all the major players at the high end of the CAD, mCAD, engineering CAD about bring their apps to OS X," Kerris said.

Analysts note that many of the applications that are candidates for Mac OS X are on the desktop, where Linux acceptance has been light. The only other alternative is a wholesale move to Windows PCs.

The biggest appeal may be among businesses that run either Macs or PCs alongside Unix workstations. With the availability of Microsoft Office for the Mac, OS X's support for streaming media and other Internet technologies, Apple's alternative is appealing, say analysts.

"In that particular market segment, they have a good chance of attracting developers," IDC's Gillen said.