Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programmers

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Thursday, October 30, 2008

Solaris iPhone Edition

Apple’s one new feature in Snow Leopard is support for Exchange, which if not squarely an Enterprise lure is certainly bait for medium businesses. But here we hit Apple’s perennial problem; they want to sell more into businesses (because that’s where at least 2/3 of all PC money is to be made) but they want to design their systems for home users. When a system is designed to cover every possible potential use for a computer we end up with Windows, which is the kind of “few things to all people” solution that Apple are – rightly – keen to avoid. But as Tim Cook’s “state of the Mac” segment in the recent laptop event showed, one of Apple’s biggest growth areas is education which is organised along enterprisey lines.

Their solution thus far has been a partial one; we get Mac OS X which is basically a consumer OS, and then we get Mac OS X server which is the same OS with a few configuration changes and extra apps to support being used as a workgroup server. This is less distinct than the changes between Mac OS X and iPhone OS X, but the principle is the same; the same technology is used in different ways, so we get different interfaces to it. Note that these aren’t really very divergent products – a UNIX expert could set up an Open Directory Master on a standard Mac OS X box were they so inclined. We get the Mac Pro and the XServe as nods to the existence of more powerful hardware than the iMac. While Apple do have a network of business development managers, enterprise sales people, sales engineers and so on who can support larger customers, their capabilities and freedom are restricted by working on a consumer product in a consumer organisation.

Assuming that Apple aren’t going to retreat and consolidate all of their effort on the consumer/prosumer, the logical plan seems to be “the same only more so”; carry on the scheme of applying a common technology base to multiple markets, but with the product interfaces and configurations being specific to the role in which they’ll be used. Empower those enterprise sales, support and development teams to make the changes required in both the shared technology base and the domain-specific parts in order to advance their own cause. Allow them to do so in such a way that the consumer focus of the standard products is not diluted. To do all this, what Apple would need is to clearly delineate their Core OS, Consumer OS and Server OS engineering groups, while adding staff, expertise and intellectual property to their Server OS, Server Hardware and Enterprise Support groups.

The bit about “adding staff, expertise and intellectual property to their Server OS, Server Hardware and Enterprise Support groups” can be easily achieved by using the Blue Peter principle. Here’s one I prepared earlier. And no, I’m not going mad. Sun have plenty of experience in supporting larger customers and what marketing people like to call vertical markets, and have some good technology: hardware, operating systems software, enterprise services and applications. Their only problem is that they can’t make any money on it. On the other hand with Apple it seems that the money is there to be made, and the problem is stepping up to that plate without compromising the consumer products. Consolidating Mac OS X [+ Server] and Solaris 10 would not be trivial but is not beyond the realms of fantasy. NeXTSTEP ran on SPARC hardware, and as we know that Mac OS X runs on PPC, two different Intel architectures and ARM it’s likely that the effort to port Mac OS X to SPARC would not be great. But perhaps more useful in the short term is that OpenStep ran on Solaris before, and could do again. Even though Sun have switched Solaris to a SYSV-derived platform, due to Apple’s recent push for standardisation with Leopard the two OS are likely more source-code compatible than NeXTSTEP and SunOS 4 ever were. Getting Cocoa up on Solaris would mean that application portability (for the sorts of apps that server admins will want – including Apple’s own server admin tools, not for OmniDazzle) becomes viable while the combined company (Snapple?) concentrate on integrating the core tech. They could even get Jonathan Schwartz to do the coding.

Another factor in this proposition is that JAVA is cheap. Apple currently have about $20B in cash and Sun’s shares are worth $3.6B, but taking into account that Sun have lost 98% of their dot-com-boom value without slowing their R&D projects, the value for money when you want them for their tech, smarts and goodwill rather than their user base is astounding.

Oh, and speaking of JAVA, what about Java? Java currently represents Sun’s main income due to the licensing scheme, but Apple’s investment in the platform has declined over time from the Rhapsody days of “everything is Java”; currently the available Java on Mac OS X lags behind Sun’s version and isn’t ppc64 compatible. The WebObjects team (and hence the Apple store and iTunes) have a heavy Java investment, while other teams have dropped Java (Cocoa) and still others eschew it completely. The iPhone has a very busy developer ecosystem – and absolutely no Java. Where the hypothetical Snapple would leave Java is entirely open, but the option of packaging up the combined company’s Java assets and re-selling them would seem unnecessary, unless you thought that even $3.6B was too much to pay.

posted by Graham Lee at 00:43  

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