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'Net Insider

A handful of Unix


By Scott Bradner

Network World, 01/24/05

Scott Bradner


Apple has wowed the popular press yet again with its announcement of a sub-$100 iPod and a sub-$500 Macintosh computer.


Apple's market share in computers does not match the level of attention the company's new product announcements get. This mismatch has been the case for years: Lots of press but little success (except in the eyes of a few of us die-hard supporters), until the iPod came along. Even with the iPod, the press way underestimated its potential, saying it was cute but too expensive for the function and too limited in only working with iTunes, and anyway, the big boys, like Microsoft and Sony, would soon take over the market. Unlike much of the coverage about the announcements, I focused on the computer, not the music box.


A while back I wrote that Apple OS X was more than a pretty face - the pretty face is on a Unix bod. The Unix part of OS X has continued to get better in the more than two years since that article. Not better as in "more reliable," because it was already just about as reliable as an operating system can get (I now have more than 15 computer-years of OS X experience on my various computers with one crash in that time, and that crash might have been from a power glitch). But "better," as in more complete. OS X now ships with more than 1,000 Unix applications, and the Fink and DarwinPorts efforts each have added about 2,000 applications (with some overlap), most originally written for Linux.


Apple now has brought out a full-bore Unix computer that can fit in your hand (assuming you have a big hand). The same computer also can put on the Mac pretty face, but doesn't need to if you just want a Unix server or medium-power workstation. I say medium-power somewhat advisedly, because the new Mac mini has far more power than any Unix workstation I used a few years ago. The Mac mini also can operate without a display or keyboard (once configured) as a network-based server you can access with the Web (an Apache Web server is included) or securely over the 'Net (an Secure Shell server is also included). For example, I'm about to order a Mac mini to use as a server for my new Epson 4000 printer.


This is not the first very small and inexpensive Unix-like computer. A number of companies have been selling evensmaller Linux-based boxes for a number of years. But as far as I know, the Mac mini is the first Unix computer from a major manufacturer (if Apple can be called that) to be this small and cheap. This is a full multi-user operating system and reasonably speedy computer for $100 more than a 40G-byte iPod, $200 less than the single-server license that The SCO Group wants for the intellectual property rights it claims in Linux, or just $200 more than Windows XP Professional by itself. A company like HP could do a lot worse than to re-label Mac minis as its basic Unix workstation core like HP already re-labels iPods.


Unix by the handful - a great idea.


Disclaimer: According to its neighbors, Harvard's handfuls are rather big indeed, but the above promo for the Mac mini handful is my own opinion - not the university's.