Apple answered the most obvious question about its acquisition of Next Software today when it confirmed that the new Apple OS based on Next technology will not run most System 7 applications in its first release. Apple intends to provide backward-compatibility--the ability to run applications written for old versions of the OS--but doesn't think it will happen until 1998.
"Right now, our understanding is that backward compatibility in the rich sense would be available in 1998," said Apple chief technology officer Ellen Hancock. "We believe we know how to do it. Now we need to see whether or not there are ways to improve it."
Along with executives from Apple and Next, Hancock fielded questions today from the press to clarify Friday's late-night announcement of Apple's acquisition of Next and its operating system.
Friday's announcement focused on the fact that Apple founder Steve Jobs will rejoin the company to head up the effort to create a new operating system. After absorbing the surprise news, developers and reporters pressed Apple to clarify its technical plans for the Next operating system. A clearer picture of the company's strategy emerged today as Hancock outlined a two-pronged OS development course.
Apple will in fact continue to develop its existing System 7 operating system with an update this January and another major update in July that will rebuild the Mac OS's Finder feature.
The announcement took some by surprise. "I think compatibility is certainly a little further away than I expected, especially considering there's already a Mac emulator for Next. Also, NextStep runs on PowerPC in prototype already," said Chris LeTocq, an analyst with market research firm Dataquest.
Hancock's operating system engineers will join with Next's engineers to form a roughly 150-person team that will hammer out the first release of a NextStep-based OS by the end of 1997. Hancock and Next officials hinted that the current Next software--once known as NextStep but currently known as OpenStep--would form the foundation of the next-generation Apple OS, with technologies such as OpenDoc and the QuickTime multimedia development environment added in.
"The NextStep OS will be a starting point," said Avie Tevanian, the Next vice president of engineering who in the wake of the merger will be responsible for the OS team and will report directly to Hancock. "There will certainly be technology integration, but I wouldn't go so far as to call it a hybrid OS."
The Next technology will also give Apple the memory protection and support for symmetrical multiprocessing systems that will let the company use more powerful hardware and applications, particularly on the server side.
Tevanian tried to assuage concerns that the Next OS will scare away traditional Mac users, even though it is based on a variant of the much more complex but more powerful Unix operating system. The challenge for his team will be to create an interface that won't alienate current Mac users while adding in all the performance and administrative features demanded by IS managers at large corporations.
Hancock acknowledged the company made the Next deal in order to have a story to tell these customers. "I have always been a believer that Apple needed to take a strong position in the enterprise," said Hancock. "Clearly this is an enterprise play."
The new OS will run at first only on the Macintosh PowerPC platform. Since OpenStep already runs on both Intel and Unix boxes, Apple may eventually add support for these chips as well. "We'll keep it ready for the future," said Tevanian.
Apple will continue to develop System 7 until a "significant number" of users support the new platform. The company still has not specified what makes for a "significant number."