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Rhapsody questions still abound

What's a developer to do? Apple's choice of the Mach kernel does little to reveal the guts of the Mac OS of the future, Rhapsody.

What's a developer to do? Apple settled on the Mach kernel for the guts of its Mac OS of the future, Rhapsody, but the decision reveals little about how the operating system will look or feel.

As expected, Apple Computer (AAPL) has decided that the Mach kernel that forms the basis of the NextStep OS will also be the foundation for the upcoming Rhapsody operating system. The company has been dithering over the decision since it purchased Next Software in December. The other option was to keep the kernel developed for Apple's own Copland version of the Mac OS.

The kernel question caused much speculation among developers; it seemed a fairly fundamental question to leave unanswered. But now that Apple has made up its mind, the news leaves Mac developers still wondering how to acquaint themselves with Rhapsody.

"The kernel decision is more like a wind sock: It gives you the direction the wind is blowing," said Stephan Somogyi, principal of technology consultancy Gyroscope.

Developers are more worried about details concerning the OpenStep APIs that programmers will use to write applications for Rhapsody, but those details aren't expected until Apple's World Wide Developer Conference in May.

"Despite the fact that Apple said all will become clear in January, they have painted the 30,000-foot view," said Somogyi. "Developers need the hard-core technical view."

Low-cost Mac development tools for OpenStep should also be available at the conference. But in the meantime, Mac developers are taking steps to get acquainted with their future.

One way to do so is to pay a $2,500 annual fee to join Next's relatively low-cost OpenStep "enterprise alliance" for smaller developers. Membership includes all of Next's development tools, which run on Intel boxes, so any developer with a PC can get a head start. A Next spokesman estimated that 30 developers have joined since the merger was announced.

Theoretically, developers in the alliance can write applications now and recompile them once Apple completes the OpenStep port to PowerPC. At least one developer paid the $2,500 annual fee but isn't ready to start building for Rhapsody.

"It's at the investigation stage at this point because our System 7 plans are still on track," said Larry Zulch, president and CEO of Dantz Development, a Bay Area maker of data backup software.

Another developer who doesn't want to invest the $2,500 is taking a more novel approach.

"We went out and bought a used Next computer from a student at the University of Texas," said Dan Feldman, president and CEO of statistical software maker Abacus Concepts. Like other developers, Feldman voices his support for System 7 and wants reassurance that it will run seamlessly in the Rhapsody compatibility environment that Apple has dubbed the "blue box."

"We need to hear the strategy further articulated," Feldman said. "We're pushing for really tight integration in the blue box."

Apple itself is waiting for the May developer conference and the midyear developer release of Rhapsody before making strong moves to get developers on board.

"The best strategy for small developers is to continue developing for [System 7] and move over to Rhapsody when those tools become available," said Apple spokesman Russell Brady.

Right now, "those tools" means software from Metrowerks, which promised to support Rhapsody development with its popular CodeWarrior toolkit by May. The company also announced that this summer it would release software to speed the port of System 7 applications over to Rhapsody. The software, part of a pending deal to acquire the Silicon Valley-based Latitude Group, will let a Mac programmer port System 7 apps to Rhapsody using the CodeWarrior kit.

As for the kernel decision, Apple barely beat its self-imposed January 31 deadline by posting a letter from CTO Ellen Hancock and Next vice president Avie Tevanian on its Developer World Web site.

"At Macworld, we indicated that Rhapsody will be based on a robust operating system foundation that features full preemptive multitasking, memory protection, and [symmetric multiprocessing] and we committed to announce our choice for the core OS within a month. We have chosen to deliver these capabilities using the Mach kernel," the letter reads.

Posted late Friday night, the letter does not specify which version of Mach will be in Rhapsody. An Apple spokesman reached today would not give further details.

The latest completed version is Mach 2.5, but a new version was almost ready to go into a NextStep upgrade that was dropped before the Apple-Next merger.