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ATPM 3.02
February 1997





Wishful Thinking

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The Personal Computing Paradigm

by Michael Tsai,

Rhapsody In Blue & Yellow

The plan is on the table. Many of the important questions about Apple's new operating system, code-named "Rhapsody," have been answered. So now it's time to take a look at the plan, what it encompasses, and when it will be delivered. I think I can safely say that Rhapsody is even more important to Apple than the transitions to System 7 and to the PowerPC architecture were.

Several major national publications have stated that Apple is discontinuing the Mac OS in favor of NeXTstep and that Rhapsody will not preserve users' existing software investments. That said, I feel obligated to mention that Rhapsody will run most current Mac OS applications. It will even be compatible with most well-behaved extensions, drivers, and control panels — something not even planned for Copland, which was cancelled because its compatibility plans were too difficult to implement. What's more, it will retain the look and feel of the Mac OS we know and love.

A New Beginning

Rhapsody will run most existing Mac applications in a compatibility environment known as the "Blue Box." Contrary to what has been reported, the "Blue Box" is not a form of emulation. It will actually be a copy of Mac OS 7.x running inside of Rhapsody. Since there's no emulation involved, existing Mac applications should run as fast in the "Blue Box" as they do in their current System 7.x environment. The one question I have is how the "Blue Box" will affect RAM requirements, even though RAM shouldn't be as much of an issue in Rhapsody (which will employ a new virtual memory scheme that is supposed to be much faster than the one used by Mac OS 7.6).

Rhapsody will include a completely new Mac API, the programming interface used to "talk to" the operating system, based on NeXT's OpenStep which will replace the old Mac Toolbox. Applications written specifically for Rhapsody will run in the native "Yellow Box." The "Yellow Box" environment features enhanced memory protection, symmetric multi-processing and preemptive multi-tasking.

OpenStep is object-oriented and very "clean" compared to the current Mac Toolbox (which has begun to look more like a patchwork quilt after more than a decade of evolution). At January's MacWorld Expo in San Francisco, Steve Jobs gave a demonstration of how easy it is to program using OpenStep and claimed that, because of the large number of pre-built components (e.g., dialogs, sliders, and progress bars), development would be remarkable simple. He said that using OpenStep as a foundation to write a program is akin to building a skyscraper starting at the 20th floor instead of at ground level. Whether or not you believe Jobs' figures about the relative efficiency of programming for NeXTstep, Windows or Mac, there's no question that programming for Rhapsody will be simpler than programming for Mac OS 7.x.

It's true that some companies might abandon the Mac because they don't want to learn to program for yet another operating system. The ones that stay, however, will be rewarded with a simplified programming model that makes them more efficient than before. Hopefully, these benefits will encourage small innovators who don't have enough resources to compete with the Microsofts and Adobes. Maybe they will be given the "leg-up" they need to bring their products to market. If OpenStep is as easy to program for as I've heard, it should encourage a great deal of innovation. Who knows? The next PageMaker might be written for Rhapsody.

Remember The PowerPC 615

Apple has a long history of attempting to incorporate cross-platform technology so customers can use both Windows and the Mac OS. It made expansion cards with Intel processors to allow Mac users to run Windows on their machines. It touted first the PowerPC Reference and Engineering Platform (PREP), then the Common Hardware Reference Platform (CHRP), and finally the PowerPC Platform (PPCP) as machines that would allow users to boot Mac OS, Windows NT and other popular operating systems on the same computer. Several years ago, around the time of the first PowerMacs, it was announced that the PowerPC 615 would be available "soon." This hybrid chip was supposed to run PowerPC and Mac software at speeds comparable to high-end PowerPC 601's, in addition to running Intel Pentium software at speeds comparable to the fastest (current) version of that chip. About a year ago, word got out that Apple was planning to make Windows applications run inside of Copland as double-clickable icons just like Mac applications.

All of these plans, it seems, fell through the roof. Windows NT for PPCP was recently canceled, Copland was canceled last year, and I haven't heard any word about the status of the PowerPC 615 in a long time. The good news is that Apple has a secret weapon for the Mac OS. Both the Mach kernel, which will form the basis for Rhapsody, and the OpenStep API can run on Intel based machines. So, Apple plans to make a version of Rhapsody that runs on Intel processors. This shouldn't involve too much additional work for Apple, and it will increase the number of Rhapsody-compatible machines by about 1000%.

Now's Your Chance, Apple

This may sound like an inopportune time to make more demands of Apple and its operating system engineers, but I think that, in this case, certain demands need to be made. Apple needs to go further than making OpenStep and Mach run on Apple (and clone) hardware and creating a "Blue Box" for the applications we know and love by next year. It also needs to make some important decisions about the future of Macintosh computing.

Given the reluctance (perceived or actual) of developers to rewrite their applications for the Mac, Apple needs to minimize the number of times they have to do it. If Apple wants to make any major changes how the Macintosh works (and I think this deserves serious consideration), they will need to implement these changes with the first release of Rhapsody. Yes, this strategy represents an additional headache now, but adding new managers, or at least making the operating system more extensible for future releases, is ultimately necessary to maintain Mac's reputation for innovation. Exclusive features, especially those that make writing software easier, will pay off later in terms of developer support for Apple. Intelligent forcasting of what users will expect from their computers in the future will ensure that Rhapsody is competitive with other operating systems for years to come.

Two questions remain: what changes need to be made, and how will Apple mobilize enough engineers to make them happen? I'll tackle the first question in a future Personal Computing Paradigm. As for the second question, I think Apple should enlist the help of third-party developers to write portions of Rhapsody (as it did with System 7.5). They should also pull as many engineers as possible away from non-essential tasks and move them to the operating system team.

Will It Be A "Rhapsody In Blue"?

After careful examination of Apple's statements about what will be included in the multistage release of Rhapsody, I've reached a conclusion. Apple needs to get Rhapsody done on time. I do not believe the public will tolerate another missed shipping date. They will understand if Apple doesn't have time to port all the operating system services immediately. Compatibility with System 7.x applications doesn't need to be 100%, but Rhapsody's "Blue Box" must work reliably with Photoshop, PageMaker, XPress, Word, Excel, ClarisWorks, and other "staples."

If all goes as planned, Apple will have a developer release of Rhapsody out before the end of the year. When it finally ships to the public, there will be some "native" (for lack of a better term) applications available for use in its "Yellow Box." I don't think that even a perfectly delivered (on time, bug-free, exactly as promised) Rhapsody will make Windows users come knocking at our doors. If users always gravitated toward a superior product, Mac users would not be in the minority now. As far as I can see, there will be no be-all-end-all operating system from Apple or Microsoft in the foreseeable future. This is a good thing. Apple needs competition to encourage it to move faster than a snail. Microsoft needs competition to keep the Department of Justice off its back and to have a source of "new" ideas.

No, Rhapsody is not, at least initially, a plan to bring new users to the Mac. Instead, it will be a way of rewarding Mac users with something that no other company can match. An easy to use, fully-modern operating system that runs legacy applications on existing hardware.

[apple graphic] "The Personal Computing Paradigm" is ©1997 by Michael Tsai,

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