By Herbert Festoff at MacWorld, San Francisco
If Apple Computer Inc is on its last legs, as a lot of the press would have us believe, no one seemed to have told the hordes clamoring to get into the opening day of the 13th annual Macworld Expo in San Francisco. Bigger and brasher than ever, with some 80,000 Macintosh fans and industry watchers expected for the four-day event, the Expo’s main attraction on the first day, Tuesday, was the long-awaited keynote address by Apple’s chief executive and chairman, Dr Gilbert Amelio. For months, Apple has been telling us that this is where they would finally put an end to all the rumors and confusion surrounding their future operating system plans. More than 4,000 attendees stood waiting for hours before making a mad rush into the hall to grasp the meaning of the new roadmap. Unfortunately, the roadmap was still unclear to many, even after a marathon address that rambled on for several hours beyond the scheduled time.
It was pure theater, though, as only Apple can pull off. With music thundering from the recent Independence Day blockbuster, Jeff Goldblum, one of the movie’s stars, took the stage to set the theme for the event: Apple, like Earth’s repressed citizens, had taken enough and was now going to fight back. Dr Amelio continued the theme, trying to downplay Apple’s just-revealed unexpected losses of up to $150m this quarter, due to poor sales of consumer machines over Christmas and short supplies of PowerBooks. But he insisted that Apple’s three-year plan was still solid and that everything pointed to a comeback, with $1.7bn in the bank. The important thing now, he said, was to define the company’s future technologies, develop a clear operating system strategy, and return the company to growth. For the next couple of hours, he brought on numerous guests such as Jim Barksdale, chief executive of Netscape Communications Corp, as well as representatives from Sun Microsystems and Microsoft Corp, to confirm their approval of the Apple NeXT merger and voice their support for the combined systems strategy. Code-named Rhapsody, Apple will roll out the new operating system incrementally over the next 18 months, beginning with a Developer Release in mid 1997, and based for the most part on NeXT Software’s object-oriented OpenStep development environment. Following within 12 months will be the Premier Release for customers, offering limited compatibility with current Mac applications. The Unified Release is scheduled for mid-1998, and is intended to bring together the OpenStep-based application programming interfaces, defined as the Yellow Box of the new operating system, with the Blue Box Mac compatibility environment, able to run Mac applications with system extensions, control panels and other elements familiar to Mac users. This is a native implementation of the Mac OS, not software emulation, according to Amelio, so these applications would run just as well or better than under the current Mac OS. Although Amelio did a good job of communicating Apple’s never-say-die attitude, including bringing out Apple co-founder and NeXT boss, Steve Jobs for a standing ovation, his description of the strategy remained somewhat vague. Things got spelled out in much more detail later at a briefing with Apple’s head of technology, Ellen Hancock. Here, a clearer picture began to emerge, and the twin-track strategy of continuing on the one hand the development of the System 7.5 family of Mac OS releases each six months for the next few years, while simultaneously bringing Rhapsody to completion, began to make some sort of sense. As both Amelio and Hancock stressed repeatedly, the important thing was to preserve the hardware and software investment Apple’s customers had made, and still offer them the option of a modern operating system with cutting-edge technology. Several statements by both company spokespeople went a long way to dispel the scare stories which went unanswered over the holiday period following the December 20th announcement of the NeXT purchase. First, rumors that the new operating system wouldn’t run Mac applications were finally squashed, even if it’s going to take a while to make that possible. It was now clear that Rhapsody would have an advanced Apple look and feel, and according to Hancock, Apple’s human interface engineers would decide in the end, along with customer feedback, which user interface elements would come from the Mac and which from NeXTStep. Apple wants to fuse the best of the two, said Amelio, creating new technologies and supporting existing ones, like OpenDoc, the QuickTime Media Layer, ColorSync, Apple Events and AppleScript. The new system software would also make extensive use of Java, incorporating a Java Virtual Machine. Hancock stated that Java was extremely important for our future, and that over time the Java virtual machine would become the dominant element in the operating system. Some analysts even think Rhapsody may offer the best Java environment of all existing platforms.
A couple of questions remain unanswered. Although Hancock was adamant that the new combined Apple-NeXT development team will concentrate their efforts on getting Rhapsody up and running on PowerPC, stressing that there would be no implementation to Intel-based systems for technical reasons, thus scotching speculation that Apple would dump the PowerPC in favor of a larger installed base, it remained unclear just how much work Apple would put into new versions of OpenStep for Intel, without a Mac Blue Box. Some interesting remarks were made by Apple engineers about the possibility of implementations for other chips. Several developers, as well as some journalists and analysts, felt that the message was still confusing. Which system should you develop for, Mac OS or Rhapsody? Hancock’s answer was straightforward: If it’ll take you 12-18 months to finish, start now with OpenStep; otherwise, go for the existing Mac OS market, knowing that your application will run under the Mac compatibility box. Apple’s software subsidiary, Claris, will have a foot in both camps, moving their applications over to OpenStep while still developing for Mac OS. Did Apple do enough in Dr. Amelio’s keynote to clear up the confusion and allay the real fears that are out there? Immediate reactions were mixed, but in general those most disposed toward Apple thought they had, although with reservations. The next few days of Macworld should be interesting to see how reactions develop. As Amelio echoed Independence Day, the good guys are regrouping. But when does the counter-attack begin?