How Open Source Could Win the Desktop

I have discussed the difficulties of getting wide adoption for Linux on the desktop in quite a few blog entries (here and here). In short, we have a chicken and the egg problem: there are not enough Linux desktop users for application vendors to justify the port to Linux on the desktop; however, users are not willing to move to desktop Linux until it supports the applications they require. I have also talked about the lack of vendor driver support that would allow users to plug and play with any device they happen to buy at the local electronics store (scanners, printers, digital cameras, MP3 players, etc.) The human tendency to resist change is another factor slowing the growth of the Linux desktop.

Apple, on the other hand, has done a better job of getting vendor and driver support for OS X. Cranky Geek, John C. Dvorak has suggested that Apple release OS X into open source, which is not as radical as it seems at first glance, since OS X is built on BSD.

“A cloud is rising over Mac OS X and its future unless Apple makes its boldest move ever: turning OS X into an open-source project. That would make the battle between OS X and Linux the most interesting one on the computer scene. With all attention turned in that direction, there would be nothing Microsoft could do to stem a reversal of its fortunes.” (Dvorak)

Dvorak takes this idea in a different direction than what I am about to do; however, I found the idea of an open source operating system from Apple intriguing. Setting business issues about whether or not Apple would ever really do this and whether this would make good business sense for Apple aside for the time being, this idea is worth exploring. By building on Apple’s current success with consumers and adding a solution that would be supported by the open source purists, Apple might be able to more effectively increase market segment share on the desktop. Under open source distribution licenses, it could also be used as a low cost alternative to Windows, particularly in emerging geographies. This makes the gigantic assumption that an open source OS X would also run on mainstream (not Apple-specific) hardware. Getting back to the business side of the equation, Apple would need to find an appropriate business model for open sourcing OS X, which could include a basic open source version with an up-sell to a premium version or a support and services model.

Taken to the extreme, we could position Linux as a server operating system and open source OS X as the open source desktop solution; however, I think that this is a bit extreme. A more likely case is that we could get consumers to start embracing an open source OS X desktop solution, which might also drive increased demand for Linux on the desktop helping to resolve the chicken and egg issue.

In reality, an open source OS X is probably a highly unlikely scenario, but it would make for a very interesting environment.