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Apple to show a little Rhapsody

The computer maker will demonstrate an early version of its next-generation operating system next month.

Apple Computer (AAPL) will give Mac developers the first glimpse of their future next month when it demonstrates an early version of its next-generation operating system, Rhapsody.

The preview will be the highlight of the Worldwide Developers Conference opening May 13 in San Jose, California. This year's conference is critical for Apple as it scrambles to hold onto the loyalty of the Mac development community and foster the development of software applications for Rhapsody.

The base technology for Rhapsody was acquired last year as part of Apple's merger with Next Software.

Apple will be walking a tightrope all week at the conference. The company has the difficult task of encouraging developers to write both for Rhapsody and for the next revision of the current Macintosh OS, which will be called Mac OS 8.

To that end, Apple is also expected to give developers a detailed look at Mac OS 8, previously referred to as Tempo. The final release of this upgrade is slated for July and promises to offer an updated interface appearance, improved performance, and new features that make organization of files easier.

But inevitably, most of the attention will be paid to Rhapsody, viewed by many as the project that will either save Apple or send it over the edge.

The company plans to release Rhapsody to developers sometime in the middle of the year so that they can begin to write new programs for Macintosh computers. The finished version of Rhapsody is expected to ship to actual users in mid-1998.

But Apple must entice developers to write exciting programs for Rhapsody right now--and so far, its efforts at evangelism have been tepid, according to Chris LeTocq, an analyst covering operating systems for market research firm Dataquest.

"I've not exactly seen Rhapsody evangelists beating on people. There certainly is a need for Apple to get that show on the road," LeTocq said, referring to the imperative that Apple make a credible effort to deliver Rhapsody on time with plenty of application support.

Indeed, Apple may now begin to push Macintosh developers hard to write applications for Rhapsody because it will offer important new features, including memory protection, which keeps the system from crashing when one application goes down. The system will also allow "preemptive multitasking," which increases performance by dividing processor time between applications more equally.

These are the two critical features that Apple had tried to create for Copland, a version of the Mac OS that the company eventually abandoned in favor of buying NextStep. But Apple must also demonstrate that it can provide "backwards compatability," or the ability to run existing applications on the new OS so that users won't have to throw away all their software to move to Rhapsody.

To do that, Apple will help developers test how well their current Mac OS applications run on Rhapsody. These existing programs won't be able to take full advantage of Rhapsody's new features but should run without glitches.

When Apple announced its Rhapsody plans at the last Macworld Expo, most developers were enthusiastic about the plan but skeptical that Apple could meet its calendar for delivery.

The series of Developer's Conference announcements are an indication that the company is intent on restoring the confidence of developers and users by showing that it can release software on schedule.