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Amelio must fill in the blanks

Macworld Expo Apple Computer Chairman and CEO Gil Amelio will use his Macworld Expo keynote to address some significant questions about the NextStep-Macintosh hybrid operating system, newly dubbed Rhapsody.

Macworld Expo SAN FRANCISCO--Even some of the most loyal Apple users and developers are in wait-and-see mode a day before Apple Computer Chairman and CEO Gil Amelio will use his Macworld Expo keynote to address some significant questions about the NextStep-Macintosh hybrid operating system, newly dubbed Rhapsody.

Apple purchased Next Software for $400 million last month. The main prize was Next's NextStep operating system. Apple said it intends to use that technology to create a modern Mac OS with memory protection, multithreading and preemptive multitasking.

The hastily arranged announcement was long on drama, as native son Steve Jobs returned to the fold, but short on the details that mattered most, particularly to the Macintosh developers whose livelihoods depend on a viable Macintosh industry.

While developers were heartened that Apple is taking steps to revive its market, many are anxiously waiting those details before formulating their own plans. Wall Street meanwhile hardly reacted at all to news of the acquisition.

Developers and users are still wondering about the exact form Rhapsody will take, not to mention the marketing plans for the new OS. With Apple's future clouded by much larger first-quarter loss than expected, Amelio's speech tomorrow will be the key factor in determining the level of support Wall Street and the developer community will lend to Apple.

Amelio has promised to divulge tomorrow the strategic and technical blueprint for Rhapsody and now must deliver. The following are some of the questions that the Mac community is waiting for him to answer.

--Will the guts of the new OS due in late 1997 be mostly Apple or Next technology?

One of the key technology decisions will be the fate of the kernel, the part of the OS that interacts with the hardware and controls the lowest level of functionality such as booting up and file system management.

--NextStep is based on a variant of Unix known as "Mach." Will Apple go with Next's Mach kernel or refurbish its next-generation kernel developed for the "Copland" project? The new Copland kernel is considered to be quite stable and could still be a viable base, but the Mach kernel would give Apple the modern features its system needs, such as memory protection--which protects the entire system from crashing when one application goes down--and preemptive multitasking--which speeds up performance by dividing processor time between applications more equally.

One certainty, however, is that Apple will junk its old "toolbox" programming interface in favor of Next's OpenStep programming interfaces, according to Apple Chief Technology Officer Ellen Hancock. She spoke before a panel today sponsored by weekly magazine Macweek.

"We're asking developers to move to a new programming interface," Hancock said. "We are in fact causing discontinuity at the API level."

Next's object-oriented OpenStep development environment lets applications run just as easily on Windows NT or Sun Solaris without any change to the basic code. In contrast, applications written for the current Mac OS programming interfaces--collectively known as the "toolbox"--run only on Macintosh. After unsuccesful attempts to build new interfaces for Copland that remained compatible with System 7 applications, Apple decided to go with a brand new set.

-- What will Rhapsody look like?

The NextStep OS as it stands has a widely praised interface with a familiar windows-and-desktop metaphor. The visual differences between it and Apple are relatively minor: for example, scrollbars in Next applications are on the left side of the screen, where most mouse action takes place and menus can be ripped off and left to stand on the desktop. Many Next users say it's a more elegant solution, but Hancock has suggested that the Rhapsody interface will look more like the familiar Mac.

-- Will Rhapsody run on old machines?

So far, Apple officials have said only that the new OS will run on some but not necessarily all Power Macintoshes. That will probably leave a significant base of early Power Mac users, plus users with Quadras, Performas, Powerbooks and other models that use the 68000 family of processors, stuck with System 7 until further notice.

System 7 users won't exactly be orphaned, however, since Apple will continue to upgrade System 7 and will support the platform for the next five to ten years, according to Amelio. The company plans to release an update later this month, called Harmony, and a major update in July called Tempo.

-- What about licensing plans for the Mac clones?

The current Mac OS already runs on several clones, and Rhapsody should as well, according to Power Computing founder, chairman and CEO Stephen Kahng.

"If a customer has a Power Computing system, the Next iteration that comes out will be compatible on the hardware," said Kahng.

But Apple hasn't actually confirmed that or said if the Mac clones will get the new operating system at the same time that Apple releases it.

-- Will Rhapsody run on Intel processors?

Once a heretical thought, the prospect of Intel-based PCs running the Macintosh OS is now a real possibility. NextStep already runs on Intel chips and that might help Apple face up to the reality of its shrinking hardware market share. Restless Mac software developers want their work to run on as many boxes as possible but Apple so far has been unclear about whether or when it would support Intel.

"I think it would make great sense to support Intel platforms especially if it could be run on a machine with Win 95 or NT installed in some sort of dual boot," said Gordon Eubanks, chairman and CEO of utility and development software maker Symantec. "This is not an admission of Apple's failed hardware strategy, just recognition of the great job Intel has done."

Apple has said it will focus Rhapsody on PowerPC first and foremost. Hancock said at today's panel that this is necessary "to respond to questions of why we should trust Apple."

-- Is Apple abandoning the consumer market?

Apple has said that the point of buying NextStep was to penetrate deeper into the business market.With its memory protection and pre-emptive multitasking, there's no denying NextStep is much better equipped for running networks and servers. "Clearly this is an enterprise play," said Hancock in a press conference December 23.

With the real money coming from business users, Apple can't afford to remain only a high-end graphics, multimedia, and education company. But its most loyal and rabid users live and work in these markets and Apple still must state clearly what its priorities will be in terms of development resources.

--What will happen to other Apple technologies?

Apple has said it would incorporate the QuickTime Media Layer and OpenDoc into the new operating system, but has not said when. Any delay in bringing QuickTime, the most popular multimedia development platform, to the new OS could be disastrous. Another critical decision involves Next's Display Postscript, which could supercede Apple's homegrown QuickDraw GX graphics engine--the software that creates the basic visual elements on screen.

"They have to make really hard decisions about the graphics and multimedia feature set," said Stephan Somogyi, principal of San Francisco-based consultancy Gyroscope. "It's a fundamental part of Apple's market with serious fiscal and developer ramifications."

If adopted into the Next/Mac OS, Display Postscript would display graphics consistently, whether on screen or printed to paper. But the technology belongs to Adobe Systems, and Apple would have to pay licensing fees. The homegrown QuickDraw GX would be a cheaper option, according to Somogyi.

--What about other Next technologies? Apple also acquired Next's WebObjects and Interface Builder development tools as part of the merger. Company officials are apparently eager to parlay them into a higher-profile business software presence and have brought in an executive devoted to cross-platform development environments such as WebObjects, Java, and OpenDoc. But again, no timeframes or specifics.

While the OS is still a year away, that's not a lot of time for developers to make plans if they are going to completely rewrite their applications for an entirely new OS. They need to know how much time and effort to dedicate to rewriting. And without the support of the development community and a host of interesting and powerful applications to show off new capabilities, Apple's new OS may be doomed, no matter how wonderful it may be.