As interest in the open source Linux operating system has become more mainstream, companies such as IBM and Hewlett-Packard have joined the UK's major Linux trade show, Linux Expo UK.
At this year's Expo the business giants and Linux geeks were joined for the first time by consumer-friendly Apple, which is pitching its Mac OS X operating system as the ultimate workstation environment for developers, researchers and system administrators.
Historically, the Macintosh was the focus of its own group of enthusiasts who revelled in its easy-to-use, graphical design philosophy. With the switch to OS X a couple of years ago, however, Apple began to tap into the community of developers who use Unix and its open-source clone, Linux, which became the poster child of the software world during the dot-com boom.
"For Mac OS versions 1 to 9 Apple had an operating system that was a bit quirky. Now we have OS X," said an Apple representative at the show, who declined to be named. The expo takes place between 9 and 10 October in London's Olympia exhibition centre.
Both Linux and Unix are widely used for servers, scientific research and high-performance computing, though they have made few inroads into the consumer desktop market. Mac OS X is based on BSD, a version of Unix, but with Apple's own consumer-friendly technology bolted on.
The combination has proved appealing to many techies, with Apple laptops, in particular, beginning to make a significant showing at Linux conferences.
At the expo, Apple explained how many of its innovations aimed at mainstream users can also benefit those used to working with command-line consoles. The Mach microkernel on which the software is based, for example, supports kernel extensions, meaning that the kernel (or core) does not have to be recompiled in order to add new features. Recompiling is the process of turning source code into software that is ready to run.
Since OS X is Unix under the hood, it can authenticate to Unix servers and be treated as normal Unix when on a network with other Unix-based machines. Every Unix application can be ported to OS X, and many already have been, Apple said.
Quartz Extreme, a technology introduced with the most recent 10.2 version of OS X for offloading user interface computations to the graphics processor, and leaving the main processor free for other tasks, also benefits technical and scientific users, Apple said. It allows "super-fast maths", making 3D rendering, for example, faster than on a comparable Intel-based machine running Red Hat.
While Apple's user interface is generated through the famous Aqua technology, OS X also allows users to run X11, a windowing system widely used on Unix and Linux. X-Windows applications from the Unix world can be run on top of an application called Fink, in their own environment -- such as KDE, Gnome, Sawfish or Enlightenment -- or directly on the Mac desktop.
Because it's aimed at consumers, OS X has no problems in some of the areas where Linux still lags, such as multimedia performance and productivity tools, Apple said. Some Linux users must run a separate PC for these tools, but the Mac can combine the best of both worlds, in Apple's view.
"We're not saying that Unix is bad, but if you want productivity applications that really work, OS X delivers everything. It just works," the Apple representative said. He said that while Linux desktop environments such as KDE and Gnome work well, "those are still aimed at enthusiast users. This is several levels of magnitude bigger -- it's aimed at the mainstream."
The company is fond of saying that OS X is now the biggest Unix distribution on the desktop, with an installed base of millions.
Apple's laptops, such as the Powerbook and iBook models, especially shine on power management and wireless, Apple said, two areas that Linux -- and even Windows -- has more trouble with. Because Apple makes both its hardware and software, it is able to closely control how the two interact.
As attractive as OS X may be, however, it is not just another Unix or Linux distribution -- it is only available on Apple's hardware. The company makes the vast bulk of its revenues from hardware, and software innovations are generally aimed at driving hardware sales.