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Apple nearly licensed Mac OS X to Compaq

Ben Rosen, former chairman of Compaq, has joined the hordes of technology giants offering up their memories of Steve Jobs - and in doing so revealed that Jobs wanted Compaq to license Mac OS X back in 1999.

In a personal blog post (opens in new tab), Rosen - a self-professed Apple evangelist who was forced to use "that other OS" for 20 years due to his involvement with Compaq - remembers a visit to see Steve Jobs in which he offered the chance to license Apple's new Mac OS X operating system.

"Steve wanted Compaq to offer the Apple operating system on its PC line," Rosen explains, "adding to the Microsoft OS that had always been our sole OS. At the time, Compaq was the world’s largest manufacturer of PCs. Our adopting the Apple OS would be seen as a feather in Apple’s cap - and a pretty visible slap at Microsoft."

That meeting suggests an alternate universe in which the PC market took a decidedly different turn.

Mac OS X - released in Server form in 1999 - was under development for the x86 architecture as well as the PowerPC architecture from the start, long before Apple's 2005 announcement of a move to Intel processors. According to Rosen, it was Jobs' plan to license the x86 version to third parties, to be sold alongside the PowerPC edition on Apple hardware.

Compaq wasn't the only company Apple was talking to: in 1998, Jobs personally pulled the plug on deals with Motorola and Power Computing to produce 'Mac Clone' systems.

A deal with Compaq would have seen other large PC manufacturers follow, however, and would have created a market where Mac OS X and Windows competed side-by-side on identical hardware. The benefits for Apple are clear: rather than the minority market share it enjoys today, it would be easy to see the platform capturing a significant chunk of Microsoft's business.

The deal would have had another effect on Apple, however: a loss of control. Mac OS X enjoys its reputation as a stable, secure and reliable operating system largely due to Apple's total control over the hardware ecosystem. Unlike Windows, which has to support millions of different combinations of processors, memory, graphics hardware, chipsets and sound cards, Mac OS X only - officially - runs on hardware produced by Apple itself.

In a world where Mac OS X is licensed to third-parties, that advantage is lost. The result: an operating system that is significantly less reliable, and - thanks to an increased market share - one which receives far more interest from attackers and virus writers.

With third-party hardware available with Mac OS X, Apple would lose its 'premium' sheen: thanks to impressive design, Apple products are often seen as fashion accessories as well as workstations - but in an effort to compete with low-cost Mac clone creators, Apple would likely find itself cutting corners to reduce the famous 'Apple tax' on first-party hardware.

Thankfully for Apple fans, the deal was never to be. "The catching up with Steve was fun, the food was great, but the OS idea never gained traction," Rosen explains. "Upon further analysis, it didn’t make sense for either Compaq or Apple. Compaq wasn’t about to declare war on Microsoft, our partner from our birth in 1982, and Steve had second thoughts about licensing their crown jewels."

That decision, made during a business lunch with an old friend, is likely Jobs' true legacy to the company - and in no small part responsible for Apple's incredible cash reserves today. monitors all leading technology stories and rounds them up to help you save time hunting them down.