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A handful of Unix
By Scott Bradner
Apple has wowed the popular press yet again with the announcement of a under $100 iPod and an under $500 Macintosh computer. It's too bad that 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 for a few of us die-hard supporters) until the iPod came along. Even with the iPod the press way underestimated its potential, claiming that it was cute but too expensive for the function, 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 OSX was more than a pretty face -- the pretty face is on a Unix bod. (A Happy Geek http://www.nwfusion.com/columnists/2002/0909bradner.html) The Unix part of OSX has continued to get better in the more than two years since that article. Not better as in 'more reliable', since it was already just about as reliable as an operating system can get. I now have over 15 computer-years of OSX 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. OSX now ships with more than a thousand Unix applications and the Fink (http://fink.sourceforge.net/) and DarwinPorts (http://darwinports.opendarwin.org/) efforts have added about 2000 additional, mostly originally written for Linux, applications each (with some overlap).
Apple has now brought out a full-bore Unix computer that can fit in your hand (assuming you have a big hand). The same computer can also put on the Mac pretty face but does not need to if you just want a Unix server or medium power workstation. I say medium power somewhat advisedly since the new MiniMac has far more power than any Unix workstation I used a few years ago. The MiniMac can also operate without a display or keyboard (once configured) as a network-based server you can access with the web (a Apache web server is included) or securely over the net (a ssh server is also included). For example, I'm about to order a MiniMac to use as a server for my new Epson 4000 printer.
This is not the first very small and cheap Unix-like computer. A number of companies have been selling even smaller Linux-based boxes for a number of years but as far as I know the MiniMac is the first Unix computer from a major manufacturer (if Apple can be called a major manufacturer) to be this small and cheap -- a full multi-user operating system and reasonable speed computer for $100 more than a 40GB iPod, $200 less than the single-server license that the slime at SCO wants for the intellectual property rights they claim in Linux or for less than twice the list price of Windows XP Professional by itself. A company like HP could do a lot worse than to relabel MiniMacs as their basic Unix workstation core like HP already relabels 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 MiniMac handful is my own opinion -- not the university's.