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Series: MacHack 2001
Article 1 of 3 in series
This year's MacHack developers conference marked what I thought might be a pivotal point in the Macintosh industry. Mac OS X has been out for about 90 days, so developers have had some time to become familiar with it, and experienced users have started to identify Mac OS X's omissions and problemsShow full article
This year's MacHack developers conference marked what I thought might be a pivotal point in the Macintosh industry. Mac OS X has been out for about 90 days, so developers have had some time to become familiar with it, and experienced users have started to identify Mac OS X's omissions and problems. I was curious to see how many people would be using Mac OS X, how many hacks would be done for Mac OS X, and what the general tenor regarding Mac OS X would be. Although MacHack was tremendously enjoyable as usual, trying to treat it as a Magic 8 Ball about Mac OS X elicited only "Future murky. Try again later."
MacHack started off with the traditional midnight keynote as a panel discussion with seven members of the team that originally created the Macintosh. At first glance, it seemed an odd decision. Why would you invite people whose contributions to the Mac happened as many as 20 years ago to a conference where one of the major topics was bound to be a version of the operating system that shipped 90 days ago? Aside from the general entertainment value, as the members of the panel told stories and bantered with one another, I gradually realized that the keynote worked on a deeper level - a symbolic passing of the torch from the early Macintosh creators to the developers of today's Macintosh world. Technology tends not to have a long lifespan, but in the Mac world, and particularly at an event like MacHack where attendees return year after year, there's a strong sense of history. Bringing people like Andy Hertzfeld, Bill Atkinson, Caroline Rose, Randy Wigginton, Donn Denman, Jef Raskin, and Daniel Kottke to reminisce provided a connection with the past at the same time we're moving forward into the future of Mac OS X.
The second night's keynote by Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak was even more enjoyable, because Woz in the flesh turns out to be truly warm, personable, and playful. He regaled the audience with tales of his hacks, pranks, and practical jokes (a number of which revolved around perforated sheets of $2 bills he uses whenever there's an opportunity for some fun, since many Americans don't recognize $2 bills, and far fewer realize you can buy them in perforated sheets). Interestingly, Woz said that he basically never played jokes on Steve Jobs; I came away with the impression that Jobs simply wasn't the sort of person one did that too, and even an inveterate prankster like Woz recognized that.
Reflections of Personality -- Meeting these people was interesting not just from a historical standpoint, but also because it enabled us to see the reflections of their personalities in the Macintosh. Andy Hertzfeld imbued the Mac with his enthusiasm and said that he explicitly tried to bring Woz's sense of playfulness to the Macintosh project. Bill Atkinson brought passion to the Mac, Jef Raskin gave it his intellectual rigor and desire for elegance, and Caroline Rose's contributions added clarity and attention to detail.
There's no question many others put their mark on the Mac, the most important of whom was undoubtedly Steve Jobs himself. Without the ways he challenged others to do what seemed impossible and the support he gave the project (particularly during the first few lean years), there's no question the Macintosh would never have succeeded. Many of the stories we heard were about Steve Jobs, and even accounting for the speakers' different opinions, the picture that emerged was of a man who needs to control as much of the world around him as possible.
Mac OS X's Challenge -- Jobs's need for control has seemingly increased over the years; as a small example, he's gone from insisting that programmers were artists who should sign their work to eliminating credits from About boxes in current Apple software. Herein lies a significant problem for Mac OS X. Like the original Macintosh, it's the work of many people, and yet, the pretty face that Mac OS X presents to the world doesn't seem to reflect those people. Instead, it's about Steve Jobs and his lieutenant, Avie Tevanian. All too often, when there's something about Mac OS X that is arguable at best (such as the level to which it uses filename extensions for linking documents to their applications), the reason for the decision comes down to "because Avie said so" or "because Steve wants it that way." Steve and Avie may be brilliant, and they may be necessary for Mac OS X's success, but neither means they aren't capable of making huge mistakes.
For the most part, I didn't detect significant enthusiasm for Mac OS X among the MacHack developer community. Few people were using it on their primary work machine, and only about 10 percent of the hacks submitted to the hack contest required Mac OS X. The people who were the most excited about Mac OS X were, unsurprisingly, those who like and use both the Mac and Unix, and even then it was Unix that made the difference, not the Macintosh aspects of Mac OS X. Woz and the members of the original Mac team concurred with this basic attitude - they too liked Mac OS X's Unix underpinnings but made negative comments about the Aqua interface. Woz was particularly blunt, saying that he felt Mac OS X "wasn't ready for prime time."
As a friend put it, right now Mac OS X feels like an art project, not an operating system with innovative human interface design and rigorous usability testing. If the MacHack demonstration and discussion of Microsoft's forthcoming Windows XP from some ex-Macintosh programmers is indicative, Microsoft has embraced some of the design attitudes that made the Macintosh great. And if that's true, Apple will need to set its sights ever higher or risk being beaten at its own game.
Apple is cognizant of this concern. At one session, the MacHack attendees had no trouble working up a Top 100 Issues with Mac OS X list, but at the next day's Apple feedback session, Apple's Steve Glass and Tim Holmes were able to brush off almost all minor criticisms with "yes, we know, and we're working on it." That answer is deceptively important, because the other very real possibility for some of the glaring omissions and mistakes in Mac OS X was that Apple didn't see a problem at all. The question that remains is exactly when Apple will address any given annoyance, but the four bug fix releases of Mac OS X that have arrived in the last 90 days are indicative of forward motion. The obvious date for a more major release is July's Macworld Expo in New York City, and after that, Macworld Expo in San Francisco next January.
What Apple has going for it - and what I think Microsoft can never replicate with Windows - is the hyper-informed and interested Macintosh user and developer community. We care about what happens to Apple and to the Macintosh, and only by continuing the kind of feedback that flooded into Apple during Mac OS X's beta cycle can we help ensure that Mac OS X evolves an interface we want to use in favor of anything else.
Article 2 of 3 in series
Although much happens at the MacHack developers conference, the heart of the event is the MacHax Group's annual Hack Contest, which gives the programmers a chance to code without worrying about utility, stability, or even usabilityShow full article
Although much happens at the MacHack developers conference, the heart of the event is the MacHax Group's annual Hack Contest, which gives the programmers a chance to code without worrying about utility, stability, or even usability. And yet, the hacks that emerge every year show more than the playful side of the Macintosh - a number of them have later been turned into shareware or even commercial products. Of course, such hacks risk cries of "Useful!" from the audience, but that's never stopped a programmer with a good idea at MacHack before.
My Hacks -- I was in no danger of "Useful!" cries with my first hack. Last year, the prize for my hack revealing Eudora's auto-correction capabilities was a four-foot wooden stake, complete with splinters. Why the hack contest organizers chose to give me such a prize is immaterial, but it was in part to see how I'd get it home, since a four-foot wooden stake is going to take some explaining in the airport. As I was leaving, I had a brainstorm, and I wedged the stake securely under the bathroom sink in my room and put a note on my calendar to request room 323 the next year. This year, when I checked in, I asked for the room, got it, and was overjoyed to find that my stake was still there. For the hack, I donned leather gloves and retold that story while brandishing the stake. To make it relevant to the audience, I cast the hotel as a storage device and the stake as data that I wrote out under the sink, then later asked the file system for the address to the block holding my data (the room number). Access time to my data was poor, but I did get a laugh from peering closely at the stake and announcing that there hadn't been any data corruption. Oh, and just in case you're wondering, this year I'm seeing if my data can be copied to another location and, if so, I'll edit it with the sandpaper prize I won this year.
I also participated in another hack with Leonard Rosenthol and Richard Ford to design and implement a statistics server so we Eudora users could compare our usage statistics with others (Eudora 5.0 and later can keep detailed usage statistics in an XML file). The idea was for Leonard to write a Eudora plug-in to extract numbers from the XML file and upload them to a set of Perl scripts Richard wrote to group and sort the results. I set up my iBook to run the Perl scripts under Mac OS X's Apache Web server, and I worked on the HTML interface as well.
The only problem was that since we started after dinner on Friday, with the hack contest starting at midnight, we just didn't have enough time, even with working through much of the contest. Mac OS X stymied many of our efforts with a crash while installing the developer tools, wacky permissions problems, and other annoyances caused by its rigid directory structure. But it was still neat to be run Leonard's application fresh from the compiler, enter its output into a Web page I created in Mac OS X's TextEdit, and see the results served by Apache from Perl scripts that Richard was editing remotely on my machine until the last minute before I started talking.
Yoot Hacks -- Many of this year's 93 hacks came from the large contingent of "yoot" hackers still in school, the youngest of whom was only seven years old. One yoot hack from Justin Christie and Paul Scandariato was even useful - a REALbasic application called iWake that runs items in a Wakeup Items folder whenever the Mac comes out of sleep. A yoot team of Mark Johns, Justin Lee, and Charles Melby-Thompson wrote Chia Windows X to restore the Mac OS 9 zooming window rectangles to Carbon applications under Mac OS X. Daniel Fox wrote an AppleScript called Hackable AirPort Network Seeker, which was designed to alert you verbally if you drove into range of an AirPort network. Finally, Andy Furnas hacked a copy of iTunes to make it scriptable by copying several resources from iTunes predecessor SoundJam MP back into iTunes. It was an impressive showing from the yoots this year, and it's great to see the MacHack experience helping these kids learn and grow year after year.
My poor efforts and the yoot hacks aside, here are the top five hacks of 2001 as chosen by the developers who watched all of the contest demonstrations.
Fifth Place: Palm Finder 2 -- Although most of what goes on at MacHack revolves around the Macintosh, alternate platforms are generally welcome, and the Palm OS often receives strong support in the hack contest. This year, Lucius Kwok's Palm Finder 2 took fifth place with its uncannily accurate representation of the Macintosh Finder on the tiny Palm screen. It could have been even scarier if it had been combined with Jesse Donaldson's HFS-, which took advantage of Palm OS 4.0's new capabilities for accessing files and external storage cards to use an iBook's hard disk as a 10 GB storage card.
Fourth Place: Crrrhaaack -- Inspiration was born of misfortune for Jon Gotow, author of Default Folder, Screen Catcher, and other shareware utilities. Jon accidentally dropped his PowerBook the first day of the conference, cracking the screen and rendering the bottom two-thirds unusable. Rather than crying over a cracked LCD, Jon wrote Crrrhaaack, an extension that resizes the screen to just the usable part (1024 by 260 in his case). An application provides an interface for choosing the functional part of the screen, and if Jon had mentioned during his presentation that he also wrote the hack on his broken PowerBook, he might have placed even higher.
Third Place: AirPort Radar -- Three years ago at MacHack, every table in the hotel atrium where the hackers congregate was adorned with an Ethernet hub. Most of those disappeared last year, because many people had AirPort cards and could use the wireless network instead, and this year, all but a very few people relied entirely on six AirPort Base Stations scattered around the hotel. Taking advantage of the wireless network setup, Mike Neil and Eric Traut wrote AirPort Radar, which used the differing signal strengths from multiple AirPort Base Stations to triangulate and display the location of a PowerBook, even while it was moving.
Second Place: AquaShade -- Mac OS X's "genie effect" when minimizing windows into the Dock makes for a good demo, but lots of Macintosh users have bemoaned the loss of Mac OS 9's windowshade feature, which causes a window to roll up into its title bar. Nicholas Riley and Avi Drissman set out to fix this problem with their AquaShade hack, which brings back the windowshade functionality to Mac OS X's minimize button, at least in Carbon applications. Holding down Control when clicking the minimize button does a normal minimize to the Dock, holding down Option toggles the windowshaded state of all open windows, and holding down Shift makes the windowshade action move more quickly. Derisive cries of "Useful!" were rampant during their demo, but that didn't stop the applause nor the votes that gave AquaShade second place.
First Place: Apple Turnover -- In the grand tradition of almost useless hacks, Mac Murrett's Apple Turnover took home first place with its technically impressive dynamic rotation of the live screen image. Different modifier keys caused Apple Turnover to rotate the screen clockwise and counter-clockwise, or to jump to specific angles of rotation. Apple Turnover made good use of the Velocity Engine, but perhaps the deciding factor was its demonstrated compatibility with asciiMac, a hack from a few years ago that displayed the entire Macintosh interface in ASCII graphics.
Although details weren't available when I wrote this, CD-ROMs containing all the hacks (many with source code) are usually made available for purchase at the MindVision store. Check the MacHack Web site for details.
Article 3 of 3 in series
Last week I wrote about how Mac OS X fared at the MacHack developers conference, and I also looked at the results of the annual hack contest. However, MacHack is such an unusual conference that I can't resist passing on a few other amusing bits. Only in America -- Although MacHack brings over 300 people to the Holiday Inn Fairlane for the duration of the conference, there are often a few other guests who walk around looking bewildered at the high density of hackers and their Macintosh paraphernaliaShow full article
Last week I wrote about how Mac OS X fared at the MacHack developers conference, and I also looked at the results of the annual hack contest. However, MacHack is such an unusual conference that I can't resist passing on a few other amusing bits.
Only in America -- Although MacHack brings over 300 people to the Holiday Inn Fairlane for the duration of the conference, there are often a few other guests who walk around looking bewildered at the high density of hackers and their Macintosh paraphernalia. This year, though, those of us at MacHack returned a modicum of bewilderment upon realizing that we were sharing the hotel with the American Station Wagon Owners Association. And indeed, in a cordoned-off section of the parking lot, there were a number of old station wagons lined up, their chrome polished and (in a few cases) wooden door panels buffed to a healthy sheen.
It's tempting to poke fun at organizations like this, but there's nothing wrong with appropriately tempered fixations on consumer objects, like a station wagon or (dare I say?) a Macintosh. But if Macintosh users want to avoid becoming targets of ridicule, our Macintosh-related associations must continue to move forward and invent the future rather than living in the past. Otherwise we'll all be sitting around in thirty years, reminiscing about our 2001 "Woodie" iMacs with their then-new LCD screens. (I doubt Apple will release a faux wood iMac at July's Macworld Expo in New York City, but since the iMac is the only Apple product with a CRT-based monitor, it's safe to assume the iMac's bulky cathode ray tube display will disappear in favor of a sleek and electricity-saving LCD screen).
Please Raid This Tomb -- It's a MacHack tradition for many of the attendees to go to a movie on the last night, just before the midnight ice cream social that marks the final official event. The quality of the movie isn't particularly relevant, since it's likely to be drowned out by the non-stop commentary from the audience, such as loud cries of "Product placement!" every time a gratuitous burst of advertising intrudes into the film's fantasy world. This year's movie - Lara Croft: Tomb Raider - fit in perfectly. As you might expect from a movie based on a video game, it wasn't finely crafted cinematic entertainment. The high point of the film came at the post-movie ice cream social, where many of us crowded around Apple's Keith Stattenfield as he led an informal discussion of inspired zaniness in which we deconstructed and debated the movie. Topics included the possibility of deducting expenses (thousands of rounds of poorly aimed ammunition, killer robot repair bills, imported dust) related to the business use of a practice tomb in the home of a professional tomb raider; the legal liability and insurance implications of having an in-house tomb (a good reason to install bulletproof glass walls and automatic steel shutters that slam down loudly - again, deductible expenses); and speculation about the content of a trade magazine devoted to the profession - Tomb Raider Monthly.
As Keith summarized at the end of our marathon session (undoubtedly longer than the film's screenwriting sessions), "This is not a good movie. This is a baaaaad movie." That's not to say you shouldn't see it - but go with the right crowd.
Open Source and the Mac -- Although Eric Raymond, open source proponent and last year's MacHack keynote speaker, vowed to return to MacHack, he and the iBook we all bought for him were nowhere to be seen. The open source concept took some hits too, with derisive comments about the viral nature of the GNU Public License (GPL), a popular open source license that requires all released modifications to GPL-licensed code also be made available under the GPL. The bursting of the dot-com bubble undoubtedly played a factor as well, since many MacHack developers remained unconvinced about the viability of the open source business model during Eric Raymond's six-hour keynote, and the failure of a number of high-profile companies using the open source approach (including Andy Hertzfeld's Eazel, which was developing Nautilus, a better shell interface for Linux) lent credence to last year's skepticism.
MacHack CDs Now Available -- Finally, a CD-ROM compiling this year's Hack Contest entries as well as papers and presentations given at the 2001 conference are available for $20 plus $5 shipping ($15 for international delivery). Also available for $20 is the MacHack Historical CD, which collects hacks, papers, and presentations from the first 14 years of MacHack; you can order both CDs together for $35. All the proceeds from CD sales go towards funding MacHack 2002.