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OS Directions: Marconi, Copland, and Gershwin

With rumors that the next major revision of Apple’s system software (Copland or System 8) is set for the tail end of 1995, Apple is gearing up for an interim system software release in early 1995 to pave the way for new Macintosh models and critical new Apple technologies. In the meantime, Apple is slowly dispersing information on future system technology in an effort to clarify their stance on future directions and Windows 95.

Marconi — Code-named Marconi, this system software will incorporate support for new Power Macs based on the PowerPC 603 and 604 chips, including new PowerBooks, desktop Macs, and upgrades for existing CPUs set to ship in the first half of 1995. In addition, Marconi will ship with OpenDoc, Open Transport, and possibly the Appearance Manager and the long-rumored enhanced version of the Power Mac’s 68040 emulator. We should also see some interface changes, better support for 3-D graphics technology, support for PCI and other (possibly FireWire) peripherals, and a good deal more PowerPC-native code in the system.

The much-touted OpenDoc is a central technology in Apple’s movement toward a more document-centered operating system (see TidBITS-187, TidBITS-210, and TidBITS-219). To over-generalize, OpenDoc lets users apply collections of small, compatible tools to their documents rather than throwing their documents at sets of large, unwieldy applications. Under OpenDoc, users will be able to mix-and-match spell checkers, drawing tools, text tools, and utilities to meet their particular needs. OpenDoc is a superset of Microsoft’s OLE 2.0 technology (shipping in current versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Works) and will thus be compliant with existing applications using OLE.

Open Transport is a new, modular layer of the operating system designed to allow Macs to communicate "natively" using any network protocol, such as TCP/IP, SNA, Novell NetWare, DECnet and others. Traditionally, Macs only "speak" AppleTalk; Open Transport will enable Macs to behave as if they were native denizens of any network, and furthermore be able to run more than one network protocol simultaneously. Presumably Apple will provide a set of protocols with Open Transport (such as AppleTalk and TCP/IP); other protocols will likely be available from third parties.

Incidentally, Guglielmo Marconi (1874-1947) was an Italian engineer who transmitted long-wave radio signals across the Atlantic in 1901. In 1909, he shared the Nobel Prize in physics.

Copland — Although rumor and innuendo continue to surround Copland, a few common themes have begun to emerge. One is that it probably won’t be called System 8. Apple representatives declined to comment on what Copland’s final name might be, although they have suggested it won’t be System 95. Copland may ship under the name MacOS, possibly with Marconi leading the way as MacOS 1.0. Copland is also allegedly a complete rewrite of system code based almost entirely on OpenDoc components.

Another consistent thread is that Copland will be the last release of Macintosh system software that will run on 68000-based Macs and, furthermore, that the release of the 68000-based version of Copland might occur as late as the second quarter of 1996. Apple insists that Copland will ship by the end of 1995 (a key point in their strategy to compete with Windows 95), but they may be backing away from commitment to a 68000 version by that date. Although this is good news for Power Mac owners, it does leave many owners of earlier Macintoshes wondering what will happen next.

Copland is presently set to include a significant set of features and enhancements:

  • Preemptive multitasking and protected memory. The new microkernel-based system will enable your Mac to do more things simultaneously and let you continue working without interruption through what now are modal operations (i.e., formatting disks, launching applications, polling network services, etc.). Protected memory management means that crashes in applications (or even the system) should have minimal impact on other programs or your machine. (This should also include support for applications developed under the current Macintosh memory model and run them in their own protected memory area.) Copland will include a threaded version of the Finder that can run many Finder tasks concurrently.
  • Active Assistants: With the introduction of Apple Guide in System 7.5, we’ve seen the beginning of active assistance integrated into the Macintosh system. Copland will expand on this model and include precursors to intelligent agents. Expect early examples to be tightly integrated with the System – printing, network use, and PowerTalk come to mind – but application support and inter-application features should be provided by third parties.
  • Workplace features, with better support for workgroup and collaborative applications. Likely candidates include MovieTalk (QuickTime-based video-conferencing) and collaborative document spaces that can be modified and viewed simultaneously by multiple users.
  • 64-bit memory addressing, which would allow Macs to see disks up to 256 terabytes in size and access over 16 million volumes simultaneously. This should keep even the most intensive power users happy for at least a couple of years.

Gershwin — Fewer details are available regarding Gershwin, Apple’s system software set to follow Copland in 1997. It seems that Gershwin will not run on 68000-based Macs; however, it will incorporate a portable microkernel that would allow Apple (or its licensees) to compile Gershwin for a variety of processors, including (but not limited to) PowerPCs, DEC Alphas, MIPS, and Intel processors. If this effort bears fruit, users would be able to select from a number of hardware architectures and still run Macintosh applications. Not surprisingly, Gershwin is set to include application and operating system frameworks from Taligent, allowing Mac users to run applications from other platforms under the Mac OS.

Gershwin is also slated to support multi-processor machines. As CPU chips get less expensive, significant performance improvements could be seen on desktop computers by incorporating a number of inexpensive processors rather than a single high-end, high-speed CPU. This would also allow Apple to have a mainstream OS that runs on high-end, multi-processor workstations and servers.

Gershwin should include system-level support for advanced 3-D graphics, possibly with the aid of technology licensed from SGI or other graphics-platform vendors. This would let application developers and information providers more easily incorporate high-speed 3-D models and renderings into their products. Additionally, Gershwin should include intelligent agents that handle and assist with a wide variety of tasks. Don’t look for them to simply help you learn your new word processor or find a missing file: intelligent agents might handle telephone messages, email, reservations, personal finances, program the VCR, and even make sure your house has that lived-in look while you’re on vacation. Intelligent agents will likely be one of the gee-whiz features Apple focuses on as Gershwin gets closer to market, both in its advertising and demonstrations, as well as in efforts to attract developers to its new technologies.

Summary — With these rumors of spectacular progress in Apple’s operating systems, it’s important to note that Rome wasn’t networked in a day. With Marconi, the introduction of OpenDoc and Open Transport will likely be akin to the introduction of QuickDraw GX with System 7.5: cool technology that few programs support. By introducing these technologies and shipping them with new Macintosh models, Apple hopes to push these components into the world and encourage developers to use them. By the time Copland ships, these technologies will hopefully be mature enough to provide real advantages for everyday Macintosh users.

By announcing these plans as much as a year in advance and making some details available to developers and the press, Apple is also attempting to clarify its stance relative to Microsoft’s much-hyped (and much-delayed) Windows 95. Microsoft would have you believe that with the introduction of Windows 95, there will no longer be any reason to buy a Mac. By discussing and demonstrating its current and upcoming technology, Apple hopes to show that its offerings already eclipse Windows 95, and that the Mac’s future will both ship earlier and be significantly more elegant than Microsoft’s options. This certainly won’t be the last chapter of the Mac-versus-Windows debate, but I believe it shows Apple intends to be in the thick of the fight.

Information from:
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