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Reengineering the Apple OS

Macworld Expo Apple's move from System 7.0 to the new Rhapsody OS is like moving from a propeller plane to a Boeing 777. Or so says Gil Amelio.

    Macworld Expo SAN FRANCISCO--As Gil Amelio describes it, Apple's move from System 7.x to the new Rhapsody operating system is like moving from a Cessna twin-propeller plane to a Boeing 777.

    If so, the new OS is still missing some engine parts but is intact enough to let developers get off the ground.

    Amelio said today that Rhapsody will be based largely on technology from Next Software, an announcement that generated a hearty round of applause. But Rhapsody will look and feel more like the existing Mac OS so that users won't feel uncomfortable when they make the switch.

    The new OS will run on all existing PowerPC systems from both Apple and the Mac clone vendors so that current customers will have the option to upgrade.

    Apple will encourage all of its users to make the move, but the company also stressed today that it will continue to upgrade and support System 7.0 for those users who don't want to.

    NextStep will give Apple memory protection, which keeps the entire system from crashing when one application goes down, and preemptive multitasking, which speeds performance by dividing processor time between applications more equally. But Apple will retain much of its most popular standalone technologies, including its QuickTime Media Layer, OpenDoc, the Meta Content Format, and its TCP/IP connections for hooking up to the Internet.

    The first version of Rhapsody will be in developers' hands by mid- to late-1997. Customers should be able to get a copy by February next year. But Apple won't try in earnest to migrate users until mid-1998, when the "unified release" will be ready.

    The unified release will run any Mac software in a separate window because of what Apple is calling the "Blue Box." The Blue Box is basically the current Mac OS running in a separate window at about the speed of current PowerPC systems.

    It will do everything that the existing Mac OS does but will have none of the new features of the Rhapsody OS. That means that Rhapsody users won't have to go out and buy a whole new library to move to Rhapsody but will be able to add new software gradually.

    Apple, of course, is hoping that there will be a ton of new Rhapsody software to pick from once the OS is ready. A big part of Steve Jobs's mission is in fact to encourage developers to go along with the plan and develop for Rhapsody.

    "Apple brings a lot to the party, but it can't do it all alone. It needs the developers. It always has, always will. We've got to get the developers back to Apple," Jobs said today while demonstrating Next technology as part of Amelio's keynote.

    To make it easier for developers to write for the new OS, Apple has decided to replace the Macintosh "toolbox" programming interface--the set of instructions programmers use to build applications on a specific platform--with Next's OpenStep interface. Apple has dubbed its version of this development environment the "Yellow Box." Once the OS is ready, developers will use the Yellow Box to create new applications for Rhapsody.

    But because the Yellow Box isn't finished yet, the company is encouraging developers to get Rhapsody apps ready by using the existing NextStep for Intel-based machines. Jobs said developers could create whole applications this way that would need only to be recompiled to run on Rhapsody for PowerPC machines.

    That's something that can be handled in a number of hours by a special development tool called a compiler, which translates computer instructions so that different kinds of processors can understand them.

    Apple also took the opportunity today to outline its plans for the System 7 lineup, starting with the Mac OS 7.6 that it introduced today. This will be followed by releases code-named Tempo, Allegro, and Sonata.

    Tempo is supposed to be ready in mid-1997. It will improve Net access, add some 3D interface elements, and implement a new version of the Finder feature that will let users do multiple tasks at the same time.

    In addition, this release will integrate the Cyberdog 2.0 Internet tool suite and the Mac OS Runtime for Java. Allegro is due in early 1998 and Sonata in mid-1998, but Apple wouldn't say anything more about those two upgrades.

    Developers are now left with the question of which OS to focus on, particularly smaller ones that perhaps can't afford two programming teams.

    "If you have large applications with a long lead time, say a year or year-and-a-half to develop, start with OpenStep," Chief Technology Officer Ellen Hancock advised in a press conference after Amelio's keynote. "If you're looking to go mass market in 1997, go for System 7."

    What she didn't say was that developers have a third option: forget Apple and develop exclusively for Windows.

    "If you have to learn a new set of APIs, do you go with Openstep or with Microsoft's foundation classes?" said Stephan Somogyi, principal of San Francisco consultancy Gyroscope. "They need to convince developers Rhapsody is a commercially viable long-term strategy."

    With an expected loss of $100 million to $150 million for its first quarter and Wall Street still dubious about the new strategy, that is no easy task. But at least some observers were positive today about the Rhapsody plan, particularly the switch to the OpenStep programming interfaces.

    OpenStep's claim to fame is that it is completely object-oriented, meaning that it lets developers program largely by mixing and matching pre-built objects. This makes for dramatically faster development times.

    "Their ability to use the OpenStep platform can help them develop clean code faster," said J. Gerry Purdy, president and CEO of Mobile Insights.

    Senior Editor Tim Clark contributed to this report