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Apple leads cheers, soothes fears

Apple CEO Gilbert Amelio kicked off Macworld by promising to speed critical operating system changes, but the rest of his address touched on familiar refrains.

Apple Computer CEO Gilbert Amelio kicked off the Macworld Expo trade show in Boston today by promising to speed critical changes in the company's operating systems, but the rest of his address sounded a familiar refrain of a long-promised turnaround.

Apple's software development efforts will go through a radical change in the coming months, Amelio said. Instead of shipping huge, all-encompassing operating system updates, the company will now issue incremental component releases.

That means Apple will now ship its planned OS update, code-named Copland, as a series of components, beginning early next year with an update code-named Harmony. Amelio did not disclose Harmony's feature set but said the update has already been developed in preparation for Copland.

The shift to a piecemeal style of software development will mean an increased emphasis on the company's OpenDoc technology, an architecture that allows applications to be built in small components that fit together like a puzzle. Amelio said many future software releases from Apple will be delivered as OpenDoc components, much like its just-updated Cyberdog Internet technology.

Amelio also provided a glimpse of future Internet technology under development. The company is defining a database standard for integrating data called Meta Content Format. "MCF will be a critical technology for integrating databases and making them more useful over the Internet," he said. "It will be a class of technology like HTML or Java that will do for databases what HTML does for text."

The first product to use the Meta technology is a graphical content display tool code-named Project X, now being developed in the company's R&D labs. Project X allows users to see Internet searches displayed not as a list of hypertext, but as a graphical tree that can be navigated to find the site that most closely matches search terms.

The company also demonstrated several text summary and search tools, based on a developing technology called Apple Data Detectors that could make it much easier to wade through mass quantities of text.

Lastly, Amelio's keynote included previews of new hardware design prototypes that improve the Macintosh's ergonomic styling and a prototype of a futuristic user interface that allows users to see a thumbnail of a file's contents without opening it.

Along with the technological exhibition, Amelio did as expected and described how he'll put the company back on financial track through improved product quality and customer service, as well as cutting-edge multimedia, Internet software components, and operating system.

At the helm of the beleaguered company for the past six months, Amelio tried to reassure Macworld attendees--many of them nervous about the company's future after a string of losing quarters--that Apple is in no danger of disappearing. "The question of Apple's survival is not a question," he said. "We have $1.4 billion in the bank. We can probably eke by."

But he admitted that the company has some stubborn wrinkles to iron out, most notably a sluggish management structure that needs to improve sometimes spotty product quality. "We're too big to shoot from the hip and then try to muddle through," he said. "We still have some quality issues I'm not happy about. The PowerBook quality has been a frustrating problem."

In reiterating that Apple will streamline its sometimes-confusing product lineup by paring down the number of models, Amelio joked, "I might be able to remember what products we have." Apple will continue to introduce new Macintosh systems at a rapid pace, he said, but overall the company will offer fewer Macintosh models to minimize buyer confusion.

On the hardware side of the business, Amelio pledged to increase the base memory level of new Macintosh systems in response to user complaints that the company has been too stingy with RAM. Performa models will ship with a minimum of 16MB of memory, and Power Macintosh systems with at least 32MB of memory beginning later this year.