It's not often a company gives up on a server operating system and abandons its corporate customers, but that kind of behavior would be par for the course for Apple. So it's not surprising there's increasing talk about the Cupertino gadget-maker admitting defeat and axing its OS X Server product altogether.
Such a move certainly seems to be on the cards. The company announced last year that on Jan. 31, 2011 it will beat a retreat, tail between its legs, from the server hardware market by ditching its Xserve rack mountable servers. At the time, Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) suggested that if was anyone still foolish enough to be interested in using OS X Server, she could always use a souped-up desktop machine.
Although this was not meant to be a joke, the suggestion is, frankly, laughable.
So if Apple has no credible server hardware to sell, why should it bother to make a server OS? The obvious answer is to support existing Xserver customers, but Apple's corporate culture is not one that strives to keep current customers happy. If it cared for its customers, it would allow a third party to make Mac-compatible server hardware or just allow OS X server to be run in a virtual machine on a standard server.
Another reason to continue with a server OS would be that there is demand for it and money to be made from selling it. But the reality is OS X server appeals to very few people -- mostly eccentrics and die-hard Mac fans who would rather be fleeced by Apple than use free and unarguably more suitable for corporate use alternatives like Linux open source servers, or -- perish the thought -- Windows Server 2008 R2. Even Steve Jobs appears to admit that the whole concept of a Mac server has been a failure, replying to an email enquiring about the withdrawal of the Xserve with the rather morose, if non-verbose, response: "Hardly anyone was buying them."
So now the question is whether OS X Lion, the next version of OS X due out this summer, will even have a server version, and if so whether it will be the final release of OS X Server. The fact that there is uncertainty over the server operating system product's future says it all: Corporate customers need clarity and product roadmaps -- a fact that consumer-obsessed Apple doesn't get at all. It's really blindingly obvious that Apple should never have entered the server market in the first place.
So what might Apple do if (or rather, when) it ditches its corporate server OS customers?
- The first option is to abandon the whole non-consumer side -- Xsan, Final Cut Server and all, as suggested over at Hardmac.
- Another option is to create a server add-on pack for plain vanilla OS X, which might include services and a user interface to manipulate them, plus a few other bits of functionality as well. After all, if Apple is really suggesting companies can use souped-up desktop machines as servers, why shouldn't they use a souped-up version of the desktop OS as their server operating system? It's an idea reminiscent of the Microsoft Plus! packs used to enhance Windows 95, 98 and XP. Who knows -- Apple may just be daft enough to try it.
- Another possibility could be that Apple, with its huge new data centers, could be hoping to move the services that its OS X Server customers use -- Address Book, iCal, Mail and its ilk -- into the cloud. Perhaps some kind of MobileMeCorporate thing. Who knows?
All will become clearer during the next few months, but the smart money says Apple will have rid itself of all its corporate computing baggage before this year is out. Laptops and desktop machines will probably be next.
Paul Rubens is a journalist based in Marlow on Thames, England. He has been programming, tinkering and generally sitting in front of computer screens since his first encounter with a DEC PDP-11 in 1979.