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OS X spells the end for Rhapsody

Software developers balked at rewriting existing applications for Rhapsody, a platform with no proven market.

Apple Computer yesterday elaborated on an operating system strategy that amounts to the death of Rhapsody, its one-time next-generation operating system, and its rebirth as a separate, hybrid product called Mac OS X.

The principal dynamics of the change appear to lie in the vision of interim CEO Steve Jobs vs. that of former CEO Gil

Apple OS release dates
Operating system Version Release date
Mac OS 8.5 3Q '98
Mac OS 8.6 1Q '99
Mac OS "Sonata" 3Q '99
Rhapsody developer release now
Rhapsody customer release 3Q '98
Mac OS X developer release early '99
Mac OS X customer release 3Q '99
Source: Apple Computer
Amelio. "I had in mind a hardware-agnostic operating system. That's what Rhapsody was all about," said Amelio in a recent interview on CNET Radio.

With Rhapsody, Apple clearly wanted to give developers a way of creating programs once and then selling software for technologies beyond the constraints of the Macintosh platform.

The core of Amelio's plans for the OS was the "Yellow Box" APIs (application programming interfaces) that programmers use to control the basic hardware functions of the computer.

Applications written for Rhapsody's Yellow Box can run on PowerPC-based systems and theoretically Windows 95 and NT, where the programs would look and operate like Windows applications. However, it wasn't easy to move existing Mac software to the Rhapsody OS, making the promise of cross-platform development irrelevant.

Jobs recognized the problem--a well-known sore point among developers--and acted to revamp the Cupertino, California, company's strategy.

"Rhapsody has the classic bootstrap problem," said Larry Zulch, president and CEO of Dantz Development, meaning that there weren't going to be enough customers to justify completely rewriting programs--and without enough programs, there weren't going to be enough customers.

"If we did a full-out Rhapsody application, that'd be fun, but how many would we sell? We were waiting for Apple to tell us the strategy of how we would make money on it and that didn't occur," he said. Orinda, California-based Dantz makes backup software for the Mac and Windows platforms.

With OS X (as in the Roman numeral for ten), Apple is promising developers that with a relatively minor "tuning" effort, they will be able to release programs that could offer the technological benefits promised by Rhapsody.

Such features include preemptive multitasking and protected memory, which allow for efficient and reliable software performance, respectively. But Apple has been promising for years that these two critical technologies would appear in the "next" Apple OS, but has yet to deliver. Both of these technologies are available on Windows NT.

At the heart of the new strategy is a set of APIs dubbed "Carbon." Apple has collected about 6,000 of the most-used Mac OS APIs and essentially added them to the heart of Rhapsody, which consists of a Unix core.

One significant difference between Mac OS X and Rhapsody was that in Rhapsody's compatibility environment, an old application would look like it was running in the older OS. Now, older applications can still run on Mac OS X while retaining the interface of the new OS, analysts say.

The benefit for customers is that Mac OS X applications can run on older version of the Mac OS--without the advanced features--something Rhapsody applications would not have been able to do.

More significantly, with slight modifications to existing programs, developers can make money on upgrades that offer significant new features, a more attractive proposition than Rhapsody's business model.

"We're absolutely committed to following the Carbon strategy. With all the rest of the OS strategies, we had to play wait and see. This is already compelling," Zulch said.

"This actually sounds like the first software strategy from Apple that made any sense," said Eric Lewis, analyst with International Data Corporation. It didn't take the management long to realize the Rhapsody strategy wasn't working--but it did take a great deal of work to see if the new strategy was feasible, he noted.

The evolution of Apple's OS strategy has caused some misunderstanding, though.

"I'm rather confused as to where Rhapsody comes into play--which is what I went to hear about," said David Ray, an MIS manager in St. Louis, after observing yesterday's announcement via satellite. "From what I could gather, they made it the underpinnings of OS X. If Mac OS X is going to be based on the foundation of Rhapsody, does that mean that it will also be cross-platform?" he asked, alluding to Rhapsody's purported ability to run both Mac applications and Windows software.

Programs slated for Rhapsody's Yellow Box are expected to run on Mac OS X as it is now defined, which is how Rhapsody lives on in Mac OS X. But Apple is clearly deemphasizing the cross-platform development capabilities of both Rhapsody and Mac OS X.

"The main focus of Mac OS X isn't the Yellow Box. The main focus is Carbon-based applications. What matters most to vast majority of developers is the Mac OS APIs," explained Phil Schiller, vice president of Apple's worldwide product marketing.

One critical component of the development effort is the availability of programming tools from Metrowerks. The company's CodeWarrior development tools will be offered on both Mac OS 8.x and OS X platforms, and Rhapsody tools will continue to be offered even though Apple is downplaying that OS.