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A developer's perspective: Dave Winer on the merger

It was not great theater last Friday night; it was great cash-out, columnist Dave Winer says of the Apple-Next deal.

It was not great theater last Friday night; it was great cash-out.

Steve Jobs was calm, sitting on the sideline while Apple Computer (AAPL) announced the acquisition of his Next investment, which he sold at a very substantial profit, it seems.

Jobs is a winner; he isn't investing. Steve can be a spectator now. If his operating system fails to attract large numbers of developers, he can blame it on the times, on Microsoft, or on Apple. He comes out a winner no matter what the outcome.

So Jobs has a job and a bunch of cash. Good for him. I really mean that. Now, what about the rest of us? Will there be a Macintosh?

It's uncertain if there will continue to be a Mac. There will be a new operating system. It positions all software made for Apple hardware as being "legacy," which is another way of saying "obsolete."

Apple gets to start all over. The developers may start over, too, but will they? It seems unlikely. With many developers, I believe NextStep will suffer the same fate as OpenDoc. A decent idea at a technical level, floated by a company that very few want to follow.

What about hardware? Will current Mac hardware run the new operating system? Amazingly, it's not clear. The question was asked at last week's press conference, but it wasn't answered. So if you were thinking about buying a Mac, I hope you hold off until you get assurance from Apple management that it's committed to offering a smooth economic ride to its users.

And even then, you should take the promises with a grain of salt. Apple's track record in preserving its customers' investment in hardware is spotty. It makes money selling hardware, so it has limited incentive to bring the old stuff along. The Mac you buy today could be a lame duck, or "an elected official whose term extends beyond the time of the election at which he was not reelected."

I wonder if Apple CEO Gil Amelio and his team have heard of a company called Osborne, which disappeared overnight because it got too excited about a future that was too far off?

I'd like to feel good about building systems around Macintoshes, but I don't. Apple finally lost me. What an awful place to be: wanting to invest but being undermined by the company that stands to gain the most from that investment.

Today, I view the Mac platform as a proving ground for new ideas, but not a safe place to introduce commercial software products for customers who deserve software with a future. I must say to my users: Ask Apple if you want to be sure about the future. I can't provide you any assurance.

I try to imagine what Microsoft's response will be. It makes a suite of applications for the Mac OS called Microsoft Office. Will it commit to converting this suite to run under NextStep?

I imagine that Adobe Systems views this as very good news and that you will see Adobe products proudly ported to the new system. But Adobe already has an investment in NextStep because NextStep uses Adobe's Display Postscript.

It was the belief that something like this could happen which prompted me to switch strategies this summer and devote all our attention to going cross-platform with our Web development tools. After I finish this piece, I'll spend the rest of the day working on Frontier 4.2 for the Mac. The ideas are portable, but we're moving to Microsoft's operating system, not Next's. If Apple wants to take advantage of our innovations and the work of others, they must get a convincing story in place quickly.

Amelio wants to delay telling the rest of the story for early January at Macworld Expo. Perhaps he is missing the point that developers need to get their stories together, too, since reporters are calling right now to ask what we think and what we're doing.

With all the confusion in the Mac business, it seems that Apple execs must cancel their holiday plans, get to work to figure out what's going on, and then communicate it.

Dave Winer is an online columnist and president of UserLand Software.