Column: There are some reasons to feel good about Apple

The survival of Apple Computer is "no longer an issue", according to company executive George Scalise.

The survival of Apple Computer is “no longer an issue”, according to company executive George Scalise--and there seem few reasons to doubt him.

After all, the headcount at Scalise’s forum, the recent Apple Technical Symposium in Brisbane, was nearly three times last year’s event. Apple had just delivered a quarterly result that was better than anyone had dared hope, and business customers were already warming to the sober, corporate style of Apple’s chief administrative officer.

Later in the piece, everyone was to be impressed by the clear, cohesive cloning and technical strategies outlined by Motorola and IBM, and tickled when IBM’s Dr Kenneth Kim declared the MacOS to be “by far still the best operating system--and it will continue to be”. Enthusiasm for a hands-on OpenDoc session was startling, extending far beyond the developers present.

The time-honoured stars in the Apple firmament--the researchers and software engineers--did not disappoint, either. The knowledge management concepts coming out of the reorganised Apple research group showed depth and promise and the progress of the QuickTime continuum is little short of thrilling.

Yet the optimism had to be tempered by a couple of grim realities. One is that Apple’s marshmallow vice-president layer still lives. Lisa Wellman, Apple’s VP of publishing, new media and authoring solutions, bored valuable audiences senseless with some marketing 101 blather about branding and seemed two years out of touch with her company’s technology.

Sandy Bennett, VP of the Newton group, was barely more inspiring. From the third parties, both Microsoft and Netscape put in disappointing showings.

The overarching concern, however, was with the MacOS itself. The problem was not its direction, but how long it was taking on the road. The latest schedule was given: Harmony (Q1 1997), a delivery vehicle for OpenDoc, CyberDog and QuickTime 3.0; Tempo (Q3) to introduce such MacOS 8 features as are compatible with the old OS and close off the 68k Mac story; MacOS 8 proper at the end of 1997.

The reasons for the delay are sound. First, of course, MacOS 8 must be right. A bad release would blow Apple to bits. Developers must also be given time to do things like rewrite all device drivers, let alone optimised applications.

Support from third parties is so crucial that Apple will actually bundle third-party apps on the MacOS 8 release CD.

The announcement around the same time that Apple’s OS releases will go modular prompted a flood of “Copland is dead” headlines but it didn’t change much. QuickTime and OpenTransport already exist as fine examples of OS modules. Apple is still on course for, as technical lead Wayne Meretsky put it at the symposium, “an OS that isn’t a bunch of patches for a ROM that came out in 1984”. The hard thing is that Apple must go forward without wrecking one of its great assets--the installed base of Macs.

Apple does not have the luxury of being Microsoft and letting NT 1.0 out the door and waiting years for apps to be written and code bases to converge. Nor can it play the start-up, creating the dream OS and waiting for the world to come knocking. Or can it? Recent developments suggest Apple’s way out may be a little of both.

Apple CEO Gil Amelio has been talking to Be Inc, the company formed in 1990 by Jean-Louis Gassée, former president of Apple’s product division, to design personal computers “for the next decade’s applications, rather than the last decade’s”. Be recently demonstrated a version of its BeOS running on a PowerMac clone.

Although Gassée has been frantically trying to dampen speculation, Apple could solve a lot of problems by just buying Be. The multitasking, mutithreaded, symmetric multiprocessing, microkernel-based BeOS is what MacOS 8 needs to be and it’s here now. The parts of MacOS 8 which could be easily recompiled to fit on to a Be base--the Appearance Manager, V-Twin, Views--happen to be the ones which are already completed. OpenDoc might be a little harder, but the real downside is that not a single Mac application would be compatible with the new OS.

A big problem? Not if you think about NT. The Be-based OS would allow users in Apple’s critical multimedia and graphics markets to fully harness the burgeoning power of the PowerPC architecture. Apple risks those users drifting off to Be anyway--and it surely doesn’t want to keep on playing hardball over QuickTime licensing to stem the tide.

One of the migrational strategies already built into MacOS 8 is the ability for a 7.x system and OS8 to both reside on the same disk--it would be easy enough to extend the same courtesies to a new OS based around the Be microkernel. A dual path of development could then proceed to the satisfaction of both power users and the installed Mac base.

Apple could continue parallel streams and commit itself to eventually converging its two code bases. And as Microsoft has shown, you can promise that until the cows come home--or until your low-end installed base just disappears of its own accord.

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