By Columnist
msnbc.com
updated 6/7/2005 2:32:05 PM ET 2005-06-07T18:32:05

I’m amazed. I’m amazed that so many industry analysts are questioning Apple’s announcement that it will slowly be switching their operating system to work on Intel chips. I think it’s a great idea, but maybe not for the same reason that Steve Jobs does.

While Apple's chip switch may be good news for Mac users, it's even better for PC users who should now finally get a chance to run Apple’s terrific operating system, now even better with version 10.4.1. From its new Spotlight search technology to its spiffy new Dashboard — which displays information from little Web applications and simple tools (like a calculator or phone book) and displays them with one click on your desktop — OS X is just plain wonderful.

What I’m surprised about is why it hasn’t been done sooner. Since OS X is based on UNIX —and many other Unix-based operating systems work on Intel PCs (Linux, for instance), you would think OS X would be a snap to port to PCs.

That’s especially true since Steve Jobs, in his announcement Monday, admitted to developers that every release of Mac OS X has been built for both Intel and PowerPC-based Macs. Basically, the operating has been leading a secret life: for the past five years, OS X has been cross-platform by design.

Of course, aside from a brief flirtation with clones in the mid-1990s, Apple has kept a tight grip on the Mac operating system. There's no indication that the official line is about to change, either. Analysts believe Apple will continue to control the hardware as well as the software —because that’s the way they control quality and also a good way to make money.  I’m sure that’s part of the equation.

But, I’ve always wondered whether there was some unspoken agreement about Apple not marketing OS X to work on PCs in return for something from Microsoft.  Maybe it was in return for the loan when Steve Jobs came back to Apple. Maybe it has something to do with Microsoft continuing to update Office for Macs.

(And yes, MSNBC is a Microsoft – NBC joint venture. But I have no inside information; I'm just speculating.)

It’s interesting that whenever Apple adds something to their OS that Microsoft had provided, the Microsoft application disappears. When Apple added Safari, Internet Explorer for Macs disappeared. Ditto Apple Mail and Outlook Express.

Apple made a point Monday to announce that they’re not planning on selling the operating system for use on other people’s hardware. Microsoft also announced yesterday that they plan to continue to create future versions of Microsoft Office for the Mac that support both the current PowerPC and future Intel processors. 

Coincidence?  I’m not so sure.

Apple has announced what they call a “Developer Transition Kit,” which includes a preview edition of OS X 10.4.1 for Intel processors and a 3.6 GHz Pentium 4 PC and development tools.  This is for registered developers only so they can begin to prepare applications which will run on both PowerPC and Intel-based Macs.

But whatever Apple's official intentions, there are already enthusiasts foaming at the mouth at the chance of taking Apple’s new OS X for Intel and making adjustments in the programming to allow the operating system to run on any PC — not just the ones that Apple will be selling.  I’ve been reading various online postings about how easy it should be to recompile OS X to run on the Pentium computer of your choice.  It should be interesting to see what happens in the future.

Jobs also reminded yesterday’s crowd that OS X is currently the innovator of new operating system ideas. He proudly said that Apple has released five versions of OS X in the past five years to one version of Windows from Microsoft (XP).  Plus, he announced that the next version of OS X, Leopard, is due late in 2006 — at the same time the next version of Windows, Longhorn, is currently set to be released.

On the other hand, analysts might be correct when they say another major transition may be one too many for Apple. First there was the transition from 68K to PowerPC processors. Then OS 9 to OS X.  Each time, it has been pointed out, Apple has lost market share. Apple is hoping this third major overhaul — to Pentium chips — will buck the trend. 

Whatever happens, future use of Intel chips could mean that Apple’s hardware prices could be lowered — and that’s a good thing for everyone. Lower Mac prices would force PC makers to lower PC prices. 

Expect more battles ahead.  Plus another great operating system for (hopefully all) PCs — and more questions too.

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