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Will Merced be Rhapsodized?

Sun saw the handwriting on the wall and decided to have its operating system run on Intel's upcoming 64-bit processor. Is Apple Computer next?

Sun Microsystems (SUNW) saw the handwriting on the wall and decided to have its operating system run on Intel's (INTC) upcoming 64-bit processor. Is Apple Computer (AAPL) next?

Sun and Intel signed an agreement this week to have the Solaris operating system run on the next-generation Intel Merced processor and to cross-license technologies. Sun's Solaris OS currently runs mainly on its own Sparc RISC processors.

Sun joins Hewlett-Packard and Digital in making their own version of the Unix operating system available for the Merced chip. Microsoft (MSFT) is also going to make the Windows NT operating system available for the Intel architecture.

With a tremendous amount of momentum behind the chip long before its introduction, manufacturers using the PowerPC processor could be marginalized as software developers become attracted to the platform with the largest number of potential users.

James Staten, an analyst at Dataquest, said that it is likely Apple is debating porting Rhapsody to Merced.

In many ways, the shift would make mountains of sense for Apple. Every other server OS manufacturer plans to move its software to the Merced "IA-64" architecture. By doing the same, Apple could have an entree into what is shaping up to be the hardware platform of the future.

"It makes sense because they need to be on IA-64," added Staten.

The release of Merced will also roughly coincide with the first commercial release of Apple's new operating system. A "preview release" of the OS is due in the late spring, with the final commercial release due at the end of the year. Merced comes out in 1999.

On the other hand, Apple will downplay any shift to Merced at the present. "They are very sensitive to the Intel issue," Staten noted. "They don't want to make it look like they are abandoning the [PowerPC] platform."

A version of Rhapsody for Intel-based PCs and the "Yellow Box" for Windows have already been released to developers. The "Yellow Box" consists of the main APIs (application programming interfaces) programmers will use to write programs for Rhapsody.

Applications written for Yellow Box and used on Windows 95 and NT will look and operate like Windows applications, while "Rhapsody for PC" on Intel processors will look like the Rhapsody/Mac OS hybrid.

Apple's new technology clearly shows it wants to give developers a way of creating programs once and selling versions for platforms beyond the Macintosh. Convincing them that such an effort is worthwhile is the next task at hand.

Moving Rhapsody to Merced is a logical step for Apple because the more platforms Rhapsody is available on, the better the chance Apple has to persuade developers to use it as their main programming platform. Developers can then write a program once for the widest array of systems possible. One Rhapsody developer who wished to remain anonymous said: "There's no difference in programming Rhapsody for Intel or PowerPC. It's surprisingly easy to move from different platforms." The only hard part is learning the programming language itself, the developer added.

To get the most bang for the buck, Rhapsody needs to be licensed to vendors of Intel-based systems. Apple, however, has yet to outline a strategy for licensing Rhapsody for non-PowerPC platforms; it has already said it will be available to current NextStep licensees. NextStep is the OS that Apple bought from Next in 1996, which forms the basis for Rhapsody.