Column: Amelio moves look right, if late

I ought to be an angry man. I have a bad Macintosh. My Performa 5300 Director's Edition, with all the trimmings, is the most sophisticated but worst-crafted Mac I have used since I first laid hands on one in 1986.

I ought to be an angry man. I have a bad Macintosh. My Performa 5300 Director's Edition, with all the trimmings, is the most sophisticated but worst-crafted Mac I have used since I first laid hands on one in 1986.

Apple's new repair extension programme will cover the occasional weird tinting on my monitor, even unto replacing the CRT if necessary. And after my fourth reinstall of System 7.5.3 I think I'm getting fewer hardware-based crashes. But the machine's audio wiring should probably be ripped out and replaced, I still can't stop it crashing on waking up, and I simply don't feel settled with it.

What makes it worse is that in getting the 5300 as my home machine, I let go of my great little LC575, the best one-piece Apple ever made and the last one to ship with a Trinitron monitor. Still, it could have been worse. I could have swapped it for a PowerBook 5300 ...

I know that not every machine in those lines is so ill-starred--it's just that what staggers me as a longtime Mac user is that any of them are. While former Apple CEO Michael Spindler was insisting last year that all the company needed was a little tweaking, the quality people had lifted their eyes so far from the ball that the company was making a lot of shoddy computers. And worse, shoddy computers it couldn't sell.

Actually, under Spindler, the once-unthinkable "quality issues" were inevitable. Apple's successful migration to PowerPC had been allowed to splinter into the production of more different architectures than the company could possibly take responsibility for. Dozens of models, each with a different combination of chip and bus architecture and each with its own unique variation on the MacOS. Each, nominally, a Macintosh. And you wonder why there were problems?

When Spindler got his golden parachute and Gil Amelio was made not only CEO but chairman of the board, the implication was clearly that Amelio was being given the power to make firm decisions. He has. Issues have been brought to closure, either in the negative (killing both eWorld and its branding) or the positive (sealing MacOS licensing with Motorola so quickly as to beg the question of why it had ever dragged on in the first place).

But the most important decisions made by Amelio have been on the quality and stability of the platform. The number of different boards in the Mac product line has been cut from nine to five, and may yet be trimmed back to only two. Where once there were six architectures, now there will be one. The hardware-software interface will be simplified so one version of the MacOS will run on all models. A clear migration path to PPCP has been drawn up. Quality, not to mention sanity, is riding back into Cupertino.

A more difficult, but ultimately more visionary, decision was to delay the already long-awaited Copland System 8 upgrade to the MacOS. This decision was taken in the face of generally misguided speculation in the mainstream media that Windows 95 had trumped the Mac and Apple needed a big answer, fast. In reality, the best way for the MacOS to commit market suicide would be to rush out a flaky System 8.

A delay also provides more time to assess and implement the new paradigms being generated by the Internet. Microsoft, for all the recent noise about its whole OS becoming Internet-aware, got caught with its pants down last year.

Just look at the chain of events. Windows 95, an epochal upgrade, hits the market in August. TCP connectivity has been included, but the OS ships with a rush-job Web browser so lame as to be irrelevant and a redundant client for a proprietary network which will not even see its first birthday.

By November Bill Gates is holding a day-long press conference explaining that the company's network strategy has been completely up-ended. Now, the company is working backwards to integrate Web browsing ability into an OS built for another paradigm. Microsoft is promising seamless access to local and global information via a file system designed for 800kb floppy disks.

Microsoft may yet win the war, but no other company could have missed the boat so badly and lived to be a contender. Apple certainly could not--and it has no need to. By implementing those parts of Copland that are ready to go, as the Harmony upgrade, Apple buys itself time to adjust to a future of information appliances, componentware, distributed multimedia and client-neutrality.

More importantly, Apple is also giving itself time to restore order to its systems. To get rid of hardware-software incompatibilities which should never have existed. To, as Amelio declared at Apple's Worldwide Developers' Conference, make stability the paramount factor. I couldn't agree more.

Apple is still the number one vendor of multimedia personal computers in the world, so it isn't going to disappear in the year or so it'll take to really get System 8 right, for IBM to deliver its part of the OpenDoc deal and for OS licensing to bear fruit. It'll lose money, but the numbers aren't my concern. My concern is what sits on my desktop. And I truly think Mr Amelio is getting that right.

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