Is the time right for Apple to start licensing OS X?

It has always struck me as odd that Apple’s design philosophy inevitably favors form over functionality.  In some cases, that strict allegiance to form often compromises what would other be a very useful product, like the MacBook Air.  I’m sure a lot of people value the beautiful aesthetics of Apple machines above all else, but I’m not one of them – and I’m not alone.  As much as I like the looks of my MacBook Pro, the few extra seams it would take to make the hard drive readily accessible and an extra inch of width on the ExpressCard slot to make it ExpressCard/54 compatible, would be perfectly acceptable tradeoffs to me.

Stubbornly reluctant to produce machines at certain market segments, Apple has been able to maintain its high-end image, partly by always selling high-end hardware.  This behavior has emboldened some entrepreneurs to risk legal entanglements by starting up would-be cloning operations.  Clearly if Apple doesn’t “…know how to build a sub-$500 machine that isn’t a piece of crap…”, others do.  And surely in this economy there is a vast, untapped market for such machines.

Is the time right for Apple to start licensing OS X?  Many diehard Apple fans would say “never”, but I have to disagree.  Granted, back in the mid-nineties, Apple was in the business of licensing Mac OS to a limited number of vendors – and as a direct result, sales of Apple-branded hardware declined steeply.  But in this day and age, the rules have changed.  Apple is now building some of the best hardware on the market – and that high-end hardware, tempered by beautiful design, but underpinned by commodity x86 chipsets, will surely continue to appeal to the masses of Apple fans.

Those x86 underpinnings have attracted a whole new contingent of OS X users, many of them running cracked versions of OS X on non-Apple hardware and dealing with the technical issues surrounding that activity.  Apple doesn’t profit from these installations at all – and I’d wager that the majority of these folks would happily pay for the OS pre-installed on hardware that Apple earns a royalty from, if they just had a little more choice of hardware platforms and price points.

The next argument from the Apple fans is that one way Apple maintains a quality edge on Windows is that they have complete control over the hardware platform.  While that’s true, there’s nothing saying that Apple couldn’t specify particular chipsets in licensing OS X to others.  OS X already runs on a huge variety of hardware, none of which is actually designed by Apple.  Apple engineers build drivers for these existing hardware platforms and design the system boards, but under this thin veneer, those chipsets are very much the same as those installed under the hoods of sometimes much cheaper machines.

I envision a world where Apple picks and chooses a handful of the better PC manufacturers – Dell, HP, Lenovo, maybe even Acer/Gateway, to name a few.  Apple defines a hardware spec and the platform types that the vendor(s) are allowed to install OS X upon.  For every machine that vendor sells, Apple earns a royalty on OS X.  In this way, everyone wins – Apple can continue to make machines that appeal to the high-end market and only for those segments they wish to compete in, while still earning a tidy profit.  The vendor wins by being able to sell a non-Windows-running alternative that doesn’t require a lot of support (unlike Linux).  And of course, the customer wins by having a much greater choice of form-factors and price points.  In the end, everyone is happy – and of course by maintaining a strict set of requirements for the vendors, should they find that genuine Mac sales start to falter, they can always pull the plug.

Although Apple has been known to say that they are not looking for dominant market share, the fact is that OS X is known to be one of the best operating systems out there.  There is a lot of potential in that perception, both for Apple shareholders and the Mac fans out there.  As Apple’s market share grows, more and more third parties that have thus far ignored the OS X platform, will begin to develop for it.  The only thing limiting greater OS X adoption right now is the relatively lean selection of hardware to run it on.

Even if Apple continues on its current path, I tend to believe that eventually its hand will be forced.  With the availability of EFI emulation dongles out there and cloners springing up all over the place, it’s only a matter of time before OS X is set free.  One could argue that eventually Apple will close the gap with some kind of hardware lockdown, but I believe that effort to be utterly futile.  Apple has already tried to protect OS X with protection mechanisms in EFI, if hackers can break that, it’s only a matter of time before they break other forms of DRM protection.  Don’t believe me?  Take a look at the endless cat and mouse game that happens with Blu-Ray protection mechanisms.

In the end, Apple can choose to constantly put out fires through both legal and technical means, or it can choose to profit from them.  I’d like to think that eventually they’ll opt for the latter.