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Apple's software strategy stays the course

After years of promises and frequent changes in its operating system strategy, Apple says it is sticking with Mac OS X, which is welcome news to developers.

SAN JOSE, California--After years of promises and frequent changes in its operating system strategy, Apple today said it is sticking with Mac OS X, which is welcome news to developers.

While a giveaway of 50 new Audio of Jobs' speech PowerBooks to attendees of the Worldwide Developer Conference here generated significant enthusiasm, most attendees were present to hear about Apple's operating system strategy.

And, in all likelihood, Mac developers won't be disappointed by the company's promise to avoid radical overhauls. Apple has changed its operating system strategy several times over the past few years in an effort to release a successor to the current Mac OS 8 generation of operating systems.

Apple will have a two-tiered strategy, offering both a "Pro" and "Consumer" version of the OS X, much like Microsoft's Windows NT and Windows serve different markets.

Mac OS X Consumer is designed to run current Mac programs. It has been delayed until next year, Apple said. The "pro" Mac OS X Server--a related, but different OS for back-end computing functions--came out earlier this year.

A year ago this week, Apple changed course on its software strategy, announcing that its former future OS, called Rhapsody, was being revised to make it easier for developers to move current Mac applications over to Mac OS X. Rhapsody, which contained technology acquired from NeXT, morphed into Mac OS X server, but only a few elements of Rhapsody will end up in Mac OS X.

Rhapsody itself was a completely different strategy from the one that preceded it, called Copland, a victim of developer bloat that never made it to market.

Today, Apple didn't change its plan, said interim chief executive Steve Jobs.

"We hope our software strategy is starting to sound a little boring. Hopefully, we're making up for not having the drama of a-strategy-a-year with exciting and timely implementation," Jobs said.

The road map for Mac OS X, however, isn't completely devoid of delays and confusion. Apple announced a slight delay in the delivery of the final, shipping version of the client version of Mac OS X. The client release of OS X was previously expected to be released in the fall of 1999, but is now expected to ship in early 2000, according to Jobs.

What will likely boost Apple's bottom line in lieu of OS X is another version of the current Mac OS, currently code-named "Sonata."

Some features of the upcoming Sonata were demonstrated, including improved support for multiple users, a feature used most frequently in environments such as schools, where different students share the same machine. Apple will also upgrade its built-in search engine technology to improve the ability to shop over the Internet, executives said today.

Sonata comes out later this year and in effect could be looked at as Mac OS 9. Under the current Apple road map, the company skips from the OS 8 generation to OS X-Roman numeral 10--without stopping at the largest single digit numeral.

Along with Sonata, Apple is now offering developers a preview version of the Mac OS X software so they can start developing and testing it.

Apple and dog food
Steve Jobs said at his keynote at WWDC that "we have to eat our own dog food," meaning that the company has to be a developer for the new OS, too, in order to adequately promote its capabilities.

To that end, Apple demonstrated a new "Finder," for OS X. The Finder is basically the main graphical interface on Macs for finding files and other resources on a network. The finder, he said, has been rewritten to take advantage of the APIs (application programming interfaces) used by OS X.

The significance of showing a working version of this technology is that Apple has made progress in developing the new OS. Avie Tevanian, senior vice president of software engineering for Apple, said that the Finder represents one of the biggest pieces of programming in the whole Mac OS.

Most developers seem to be impressed with Apple's progress.

"There are so many changes that will be completely invisible to the general user. It's such a different operating system from a developer's point of view, that getting tools shows us that they really are quite a ways along," in developing Mac OS X, said Roger Kasten, senior vice president and chief technology officer of Newer Technology. Newer makes processor upgrade cards, notebook port replicators, and other peripherals for Macs--hardware items that require software development to let them work properly.

"]Apple] has a very realistic schedule for delivering OS X," and developers will have time to figure out how to improve their applications.

Microsoft's influence
Some developers are still publicly taking a wait-and-see attitude, including, significantly enough, Microsoft. In 1997, Microsoft publicly promised to release a version of its popular Office suite of productivity applications for the Mac in conjunction with Windows versions for the next five years. Fast forward to 1999, where Microsoft hasn't yet signaled whether or not it will produce a version of Office--or other software--specifically designed for OS X.

"We haven't made any announcements about our intention to do products for OS X," Ben Waldman, general manager of the Mac business unit at Microsoft, told CNET News.com. However, Waldman did not exclude the possibility that the company is doing any such developments.

Waldman said Microsoft is focusing on delivering the "set of functionality the user wants." Users aren't going to be concerned about what lies underneath the application, he said, as long as it does what they need it to, he said. On the other hand, when developing for a new operating system, a developer needs to "think about what kind of additional benefits can be delivered to users," he said.

Whether or not Microsoft is going to add new features for OS X-ready software remains to be seen, but the availability of key Microsoft applications tailored for OS X would likely encourage users to migrate to the new operating system.

However, with Apple's current strategy, Microsoft's development plans aren't as critical as they once were with the former Rhapsody OS strategy. That's because Rhapsody required a complete re-write of a program, and without one of Apple's most significant developers on board, the new OS would likely wither on the vine--hence, Apple's change in strategy last year.

With Mac OS X, current Mac applications require a fine tuning of software code, but not an entire re-write, executives said. This is likely to encourage most developers to make OS X versions of their programs available. And if they don't, older Mac applications will still run, but without OS X's advanced features.