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Developers want details

Macworld Expo Developers who write software for the Mac support Apple's plan for a dual-operating system but want more details about it.

    Macworld Expo Mac developers say they are willing to follow the Apple Computer's (AAPL) dual-operating system strategy in the wake of Apple's merger with Next Software, but they are urging CEO Gil Amelio and new company adviser Steve Jobs to provide them with more details at the Macworld trade show this week.

    Executives from a handful of software companies that develop on the Macintosh platform said they want to know more about the OpenStep operating system that Apple recently agreed to acquire from Steve Jobs's company Next Software in a $400-million deal that brings Jobs back to the company he started more than a decade ago.

    In addition to test driving the Next OS, developers hope to learn exactly when they will receive development specs and information about Apple's business plan for both the Next OpenStep and Apple's own System 7 operating system.

    "We have all the plans in the world to continue to support Apple," said Enrique Salem, chief technical officer and vice president of utilities at Symantec. Yet, he maintained that Apple must come forward this week with specific plans for each of the operating systems.

    Salem and other developers said they want to know when Apple will make available API specs and development tools for the Next OS, which market segments the company intends to court with each of the systems, as well as the size of the those market segments.

    It's that simple: Developers want details. In particular, they are concerned with which existing Mac applications will work on the Next system and what plans Apple has to provide backward compatibility. Apple officials have said the OS based on Next technology will not run many existing Mac applications in its first release, set for late this year. The company also has said backward compatibility to make the apps run on the new system will not begin to head to market until sometime in 1998.

    To overcome these difficulties, company officials have said Apple will keep developing its current System 7 OS, which is capable of handling existing apps, while it revamps the Next Software's OpenStep technology.

    "For the last twelve months the market has been unclear about what they are doing" at Apple, said Salem. "If they are going to stick with [the new OS plans], they can count on our support. The best thing they can do is be specific about what kind of market they want," Salem added.

    Apple already announced plans to team its operating-system engineers with Next's engineers in a move that will put some 150 developers on the job to produce the first release of a NextStep-based operating system by the end of 1997. Yet, it remains unclear whether the Next software will form the foundation of the next-generation Apple OS, or develop as an entirely separate system.

    The new system will initially run only on the Macintosh PowerPC platform. Next software currently supports Intel and Unix boxes, and developers wonder if the new OS will eventually support those platforms, as well.

    Last year, the company was often criticized for showing little strategic direction as it flirted with the idea of acquiring Be Computer and waffled on a revamped business plan in the face of evaporating marketshare. While the company remains the fourth-largest PC maker in the United States, its marketshare continues to dwindle; it has fallen to 6.8 percent from more than 11 percent a year ago, according to International Data Corporation analyst Kevin Hause.

    Despite the difficulties, all but one of half a dozen software developers interviewed on the eve of Apple's biggest trade show lavished kudos on the struggling company.

    Bob Roblin, senior vice president at Adobe Systems, which specializes in high-end software for use by graphic designers for print and Web publishing, wants to know where Apple will be directing Adobe's customers--toward the Next OS or the System 7.

    "That will help us decide where to focus our resources," Roblin said. He hopes to get some answers this week, when he sits down to briefings with high-level Apple executives.

    He remains upbeat about the move to acquire Next technology, " because it's an operating system with a history. It's got a good set of tools and allows users to build an interface quickly and get it out to be tested by the customer," Roblin said. The company's FrameMaker software already runs on the Next OS, which may help with the transition, he said.

    Apple also has a history of making major platform transitions. Developers say Apple can be successful if the company runs a long, articulate transition like the two-year phase out of the Motorola 68000-base chip for Apple's PowerPC chip.

    Despite initial consternation, the PowerPC transition "worked out very well," said Phillip Schuller, vice president of product management at Macromedia. But he said the key to success with the OS transition will hinge on a transition strategy that supports existing customers on the old system and offers a migration path for people and companies looking to upgrade.

    "The devil is in the details," said Schuller. While he said Macromedia is committed to supporting the platform, he, like his fellow developers, wants a myriad of questions answered as quickly as possible.

    Nevertheless, Schuller, too, gives Apple a thumbs up.

    "Apple certainly needed to do something risky and exciting in order to keep their segment of the market," said Schuller. "This is exciting. Is it good? It's hard to say before it happens."

    Marc Andreessen, Netscape Communications' senior vice president of technology, told CNET recently that he thinks the Apple-Next deal shows "Apple has their priorities in the right order."

    While Andreessen was not perturbed about Apple's dual-OS strategy, he echoed a major concern expressed by other software developers that Apple needs to deliver the new OS as quickly as possible so developers can start building applications on top of it.

    Netscape support is considered crucial to Apple if the company is to solidify its reputation as a major Internet technology supplier. The leading maker of browser software also has its own agenda to advance by supporting Apple's plans. Netscape, which is facing off with Microsoft in a battle to dominate the Net software marketplace, has been a strong ally of Apple, routinely offering Mac versions of its Navigator software at the same time or soon after it releases Windows versions.

    Microsoft, on the other hand, has not been so prompt in delivering Mac versions of its Internet Explorer browser software. The software giant has had a combative relationship with Apple over the years.

    While Microsoft officials were not available to comment for this story, a company representative said Microsoft is looking to "change its reputation" as an Apple nemesis.

    She said the company plans to make some significant product announcements on Wednesday that will "show a commitment to working more closely with Apple."

    Quark, a maker of publishing software, was circumspect about Apple's plans, however.

    "Quark reserves the right to reserve judgment on the system until we see it," said company spokesman Bob Monzel, echoing the sentiments of many Apple watchers who spent last year trying to discern the company's direction.

    But even Monzel was quick add that Quark is not abandoning Apple. "We will continue to support the Mac until our customers no longer use it."