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Apple: A failure to communicate?

Apple Computer is doing some complicated spin control after reports suggested that the company was making a whole new operating system.

Apple Computer (AAPL) engaged in some complicated spin control today after recent reports appeared suggesting that the company was making a whole new operating system that would be able to run on processors other than PowerPC chips.

The reports cited comments made by Apple chief executive Gilbert Amelio during an analyst and investor briefing earlier this week. In one report, Amelio said that Apple plans to release a new line of computers as early as 1998 that will run an operating system practically written from scratch. Another said that the new OS would be able to run on Intel-based processors.

Apple representatives clarified Amelio's comments today, saying that the remarks were not an indication that there was a change in Apple's OS strategy and that the company was firmly committed to the PowerPC chip.

"What [Amelio] was referring to was that by 1998 we will have rolled in a new microkernel into the OS, and it will be a lot different," an Apple spokesperson said. "We fully intend to roll in the microkernel work so far known as System 8.0 or by its former code name, Copland."

Much of the confusion has its roots in the strategy changes Apple made earlier this year. The company said that instead of overhauling its Macintosh operating system in one fell swoop with the release of the Copland OS, it would incorporate many of the new technologies into revisions of its current System 7.0 release. Features such as preemptive multitasking, symmetrical multiprocessing, and multithreading would be introduced into the System 8.0 release tentatively scheduled for early 1998.

Amelio has also previously suggested that Apple planned to sell customers incremental releases of its operating system so that customers can update their programs as needed. In the meantime, the company is planning to introduce two feature-driven updates a year as well as two incremental updates a year, with System 7.6 (code-named Harmony) scheduled for release in early January 1997, according to the spokesperson.

"This is a case of poor communication on Apple and Amelio's part," said Michael Gartenberg, a research director at Gartner Group regarding this week's confusion over the news reports and Apple's subsequent denial of the news. He said the company and Amelio in particular have had a hard time getting their message out.

"Apple has really not done a good job of articulating its OS road," and "that is creating confusion and speculation in the marketplace," Gartenberg said. A spokesperson for Apple said that a more detailed explanation of the OS roadmap would be forthcoming no earlier than the Macworld Expo in January of 1997, and possibly later.

The hesitation is fueling continued speculation that Apple will make a deal with Be for the microkernel of its sleek BeOS.

"Apple has told us half of the [operating system] story in pieces and parts. That leaves a lot to people's imaginations," Gartenberg said. "The Apple OS road map is going to involve some pieces from other companies."

Be, a company founded by a former Apple president Jean-Louis Gass?e, is a chief contender to supply at least part of the new operating system. "They have an operating system that Apple could use," he said of Be.

"The changes will mean that not every Mac application will necessarily run in the future," Gartenberg added, predicting that many of the older application extensions and less-than-32-bit applications are likely candidates for extinction once the company ushers in the new system.