Embedded Mac OS X?

In response to the Macworld 2007 Predictions article I posted yesterday, a handful of people have asked me what operating system the so-called iTV might be running.

My guess is that the device would run an “embedded” version of Mac OS X, compiled to run on a low-voltage, laptop-style CPU. Think of it as “Mac OS X Lite,” a version of the OS that would do away with everything that isn’t absolutely needed by a device that performs a specific and limited set of functions.

Creating an embedded version of Mac OS X would be a paltry task for Apple. This is because Mac OS X is based on FreeBSD. This is precisely why Apple was able to have a secret version of their OS running in parallel on Intel CPUs since the early days of Mac OS X. I wrote about this in detail back in 2002. Specifically, I said:

All through the development of Mac OS X [Apple has compiled] multiple versions for multiple platforms and CPU’s. UNIX (and UNIX-like) operating systems are developed with this purpose in mind and have been for years. Only hardware-specific details need to be changed [when changing platforms, because] the core of the OS and most of its utilities will be independent of the hardware it resides on. Just as Apple replaced SCSI drives with IDE [and] serial ports with USB and Firewire, Apple will migrate to the best and fastest CPU available to them.

Embedded versions of FreeBSD have been around for years, most notably TinyBSD. There’s even a section of the FreeBSD handbook talking about how much built-in support already exists in the FreeBSD kernel for these types of things.

Many of you are using an embedded UNIX (or UNIX-like) system already. Most if not all routers for homes and offices run a version of Linux or UNIX (Linksys routers are a well-known example of embedded Linux). The HD DVR receiver that my cable company gave me runs a version of Linux. Many PDAs and cell phones run an embedded version of Linux or Windows. I’ve even heard about some home appliances with embedded operating systems. Most of these systems don’t even require a hard drive or any other moving parts. Flash RAM works perfectly.

Unlike their parent operating systems, these scaled-down versions only include the bits of code they’ll need to perform specific types of functionality. In the case of the so-called iTV, the OS would only need to perform a small sub-set of what Mac OS X delivers, like basic networking, a custom version of Front Row, some file sharing and streaming capabilities, input from and output to a specific set of devices like a remote control (rather than a keyboard), you get the idea.

If the device ships with a hard drive (as we all expect it to), the primary purpose of the drive would be for the operating system itself (and possibly caching) rather than for storage.

I doubt that Apple would ever release the embedded version of OS X to consumers. Rather, they’d reserve it for the systems they build, and would probably limit it to a very specific set of CPU compatibility to prevent hacking as much as possible. That said, I’m sure it won’t be long after the release before somebody in Japan disassembles their iTV (with requisite Flickr pictures) and tries attaching the internal hard drive (or flash drive) to one of their Macs to see what happens.

So What OS Will the iPod Phone Run?

If and when we do see an iPod phone … I think we can expect the OS to seem very Mac-like (in the same way that the iPod’s interface carries similar interface hints), but I doubt it will run any version of Mac OS X, lite, embedded, or otherwise. Instead, I’d guess the iPod phone would go the opposite route, running something more like the existing iPod OS on steroids.

Then again, who knows. Next week should be fun!

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