But I want to see some dust settle on this before wondering whether Microsoft wants to use Corel as a beachhead from which to embrace Linux, attack it, or simply overpower StarOffice. In the meantime, it appears that I'm not the only one who looks at this deal and recalls a similar boost that Microsoft gave, to perceived rival Apple, three years ago.
As most of you know, Apple's stock value is currently less than half its value of a week ago. So, despite Microsoft's help, its money and all sorts of new products and hype, Apple really has gone nowhere fast.
Looking at Apple through Linux-tinted glasses, it's difficult to see any turnaround in sight. While I certainly don't expect Apple to tank any time soon, I would suggest that the company has its best days behind it and that it will remain a strong niche player, but that's all. A large part of the reason for that has come in the form of two different issues, both related to open source.
First, there's the direct assault, with IDC reporting that Linux is on pace to overtake the Mac within two years. While most readers were diverted by IDC's server numbers -- in which Linux is predicted to outpace everything else -- Linux's client numbers are not to be ignored. IDC is claiming that Linux will be the No. 2 desktop operating system by 2004, even though Linux had a mere four percent desktop share last year. And that's just counting sales. Imagine how different the numbers might be if you consider the fact that Linux CDs can be freely passed around and used on multiple systems!
How can this be? Conventional wisdom says that Apple is the champion of the simple interface -- one-button mice and all that -- while Linux is supposed to be the stuff only geeks could love.
The numbers speak for themselves. The Linux desktop has matured at a breakneck pace. Whenever the developers of these projects put down the pea-shooters they're aiming at each other, they'll see just how far they've come. One could suggest that the friendly (by Microsoft/Sun standards) rivalry between KDE and GNOME has made both of them better, and in less time, than anyone in the community might have suggested just a few years ago.
To be sure, Linux lags substantially in some significant areas where the Mac excels. Linux's font support, by and large, still stinks. The Gimp, Linux's benchmark graphics app, is very capable. However, my artsy friends tell me that without the ability to define colors from the Pantone color-matching system, or as CMYK (combinations of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black) instead of red, green, and blue, the Gimp will be useful for web graphics but incapable of being taken seriously for anything else within the graphic-arts world.
In the creative arts -- visual arts, animation, and music -- the Mac runs rings around Linux, both in capabilities and available software. But Apple's current problems stem from the fact that the company, while keeping its existing niches, just hasn't been able to attract anyone else. Clearly, those in the computer world who are considering alternatives to Windows on the desktop are looking more at Linux. I see the Mac being squeezed on two fronts:
- At the "keep it simple" level, it'll get squeezed by products such as WebTV and appliances even simpler (and significantly less expensive) than the Mac.
- At the power-user level, I submit that an increasingly computer-literate society may now be making different tradeoffs in the balance between simplicity and flexibility -- and this is where Linux is winning.
It's the revenge of NeXT, says one fan. Geeks will love it, but the traditional "I don't want to know about the guts of the computer" user, Apple's main target audience, may not. The super-simple interface of the Mac now has an xterm(!) command to allow a user to type in all those nasty Unix commands such as ls and grep -- the kind of thing against which the Mac promised to protect. Older apps will only run within a compatibility window called Classic. Add the need to set up Macs for networking (OS X can't support AppleTalk without TCP/IP) and you have computer-guts-style headaches from which many Mac users thought they'd be immune.
It's a strange convergence, to be certain. While Linux is getting easier to use, the Mac is getting harder. Is it any wonder Linux is gaining?
I'm also not certain that Apple's flirtation with open source will prove a success. While the BSD used in its code is open source, Apple's OS X enhancements are not. The code it has released has been under a non-open-source license that grants special rights to Apple that don't apply to any other developer. It's a scheme that exploits free software while compelling Apple to give nothing back, and I don't expect to see much of a programmers' bazaar forming around Apple's efforts.
While BSD fans will applaud Apple's grand experiment, I'm not so sure it can be sustained. Certainly it has brought a new degree of complexity to the Mac, while promising Apple no extra share of the server market, business applications, or respect from the free software community. In many ways this path of open source runs into a dead end at Apple's doorstep. The success of OS X, the highest profile BSD project yet, may become a litmus test for the suitability of the BSD license to future projects of this kind. I'm especially doubtful, even if the BSD experiment succeeds, whether its benefit will -- or even could -- pull Apple out of its current slump.
From here, it doesn't look like Apple can ever attract anyone beyond its comfortable niches of education and fine arts. As if the response from the stock-watching community hasn't been harsh enough, Apple's job is about to get even harder with the emergence of both Linux and super-simple web appliances. While Linux has quite a way to go to challenge Apple's traditional strengths, it has a leg up just about everywhere else -- including the Internet. It'll be interesting to see how many vendors who supported non-niche applications under Mac's OS 9 will port to the new platform.
It's ironic that those on the forefront of Linux's challenge of Apple for the second most-popular desktop include within their ranks the ones who got Apple to where it is. Three of the founders of Eazel, the company now working on the Nautilus desktop for GNOME, are former Apple user-interface designers who are credited with inventing the Mac's look and feel. I tried to do an interview with Mike Boich, Andy Herzfeld, or "Bud" Tribble, but none of them would talk on the issue of their company's, or Linux's, effect on Apple.
Maybe it's a sore point -- who knows? Certainly there are factions within Apple itself, perhaps its spin doctors, that are getting a little testy these days. All I do know is that Linux is becoming a credible desktop far faster than most would have predicted, and Apple's pretty plastic cases and faux-open-source OS won't be enough to keep it from being the next victim of Linux's rise up the food chain.
More than a year ago, Salon magazine spoke of Linux taking away Apple's reign as the king of alternative computer advocacy. Just a year later, Linux threatens Apple's market share and bottom line. I wonder if Apple's choice to call its original BSD-based-OS project Darwin may prove bittersweet.