Picture, if you will, a green duck. This duck is wearing the same sort of peaked hat that Napoleon usually wears in formal portraits, as opposed to the “No Fat Chicks” cap that he wears in his candid photos. The duck is also on roller skates and is playing the banjolele – feel free to embellish further.

Look at that little rascal go! Skating in random loops, quacking in time with the music he’s playing, occasionally darting a prehensile wing to his head to keep the hat from falling off. Gosh! Seriously. If you don’t concentrate and form a clear picture of this duck in your mind, you’re going to seriously regret it by somewhere around paragraph 10.

Since the day Apple announced it was moving to Intel processors, I’ve often found myself standing in front of an audience and forced to answer the question “Do you think the Mac-Intel OS will ever be hacked to run on a Windows PC?”

When I was asked this in front of an audience composed of hackers, naturally I was honest. “Of course it will.” Hackers, after all, are the possessors of a frisky and enviable gene that causes them to find some impossible bastard of a loophole that nobody else had even slightly suspected could exist. The Sony PlayStation Portable – with its completely undocumented hardware and operating system, designed from the ground up to refuse to run even the most trivial scrap of non-approved code – has been hacked to run Windows. Put nothing past the skills and determination of hackers. I don’t know the entire secret behind Stonehenge, but I’m guessing that part of it can be traced back to some stonecutter saying loudly and publicly “No, these blocks will never be stolen from the quarry. That’s specifically why I made them so huge... to make them absolutely secure and impossible to move.”

But when I was asked that same question on a cable news network, naturally I lied through my teeth. “Of course it won’t be hacked,” I said. The most accurate answer is: “The Intel edition of OS X will be broken at some stage and in some fashion, but probably not in a way that makes it an attractive alternative to running the OS on Apple hardware as God intended.” But by the time my five minutes of live airtime is cut down to a five-second blurb that runs every quarter hour in the Tech News Minute or some such, there I am, telling thousands of people that Apple is hosed, hammered, and totally screwed.

Which it’s not. There is, after all, a huge difference between hacking an OS well enough to win bragging rights and hacking it well enough that people who would have bought Macintosh hardware are now buying Vaios and Dells instead, and then seeking out an illegal download site.

The prospect of OS X running on any Intel box anywhere is enough to creep any true, rainbow-blooded Apple user right out of their (usually ambitiously pierced) skin. Remember, this new spin of the OS will include Rosetta technology for backwards compatibility. A well-hacked Mac-Intel OS wouldn’t allow Windows and Linux users to run only new Intel editions of Mac software. With the OS’s built-in PowerPC emulator, it’d let them run all Mac OS X apps ever written.

I’m forced to ruminate over this issue all over again because of a dinner I had last Thursday, at a bar and grill in Cambridge (our New England one, that is, not your Old England edition).
I read some traffic on a message board and then, sceptical that what I had read was actually true, I started getting in touch with friends, and friends of friends, and friends of friends of friends. Two days later, I was sitting in a booth with a total stranger. Our two bacon-cheeseburger platters grew cold as he showed me a hacked edition of Mac OS X running on an ultra-light Sony Vaio Windows subnotebook.

I’ll be blunt: it was like watching your parents have sex. You’re sure it’s happening, but, dear God, you don’t ever want to see proof of it right in front of you.
(And here’s why I wanted you to have that duck standing by. Quite against your will, you are now visualizing your parents having making sweet, sweet love. To eradicate the image, send the duck into the room, and keep your mental camera on it as the duck skates once around the bed, sofa, or exercise bike and then back out the door.)

Well, I’m still not terribly worried about the threat of a hacked Intel Mac OS. Yes, the Vaio I saw ran every iLife and iWork app the guy threw at it – he said it was actually very, very easy – but, naturally, he’d hacked the current developer pre-pre-pre-release edition, which doesn’t have the full anti-hacking mojos wired into it yet. And surely this mojo is going to be strengthened by future hardware voodoo, which won’t arrive until the actual shipping hardware does, you know? Apple’s got a whole year to make the OS security scheme truly work, and presumably anything that’s broken before then can be readily fixed.

I’m not worried about how a hacked OS could harm Apple, I’m actually intrigued by what it could to do help the cause of the Mac OS. The Mac-Intel OS will indeed be hacked on a regular basis. However, locating an illegal copy of the hacked OS and an illegal copy of Macintosh firmware and making it all work will be beyond the abilities of the average user, so the only folks running it will be people who were unlikely to buy hardware anyway. So what’s the big deal?

Meanwhile, the illicit ‘hacked’ OS could be the ultimate Macintosh test drive for so many Windows users. And just imagine what would happen if Apple could safely and securely produce a Mac OS X ‘Live CD’ for Windows? That’s how so many Windows users get hooked on Linux: someone hands them a single bootable CD or DVD that allows them to fully experience an alternative OS without the need to reformat any drives or mess around with their existing setup.

After all, the best way to get a Windows user to switch is to show them, in definitive and dazzling fashion, that software really isn’t supposed to suck. A free, bootable Mac OS for Windows CD that self destructs 24 hours after exposure to sunlight (yup, these discs exist) could be just the ticket.

So, no, I’m not losing any sleep over last week’s demo of a hacked Mac OS. On top of everything else, I have to
have faith that Apple knows how utterly devastating it would be to actually release an Intel edition of the Mac OS with pathetic security. They simply couldn’t possibly be that stupid, could they?

Then again, “George Lucas couldn’t be that stupid” was the foundation of my faith that Episode III: Revenge of the Sith would tie all of the prequels into a coherent, satisfying whole. And how well did that work out? MW