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Getting It Backwards

Last week, an article by Tom Abate in the San Francisco Examiner triggered an avalanche of speculation, wire service stories, and (as usual) semi-hysterical letters to TidBITS. The cause? The Examiner article seemed to claim Apple’s Chief Technology Officer, Ellen Hancock, was planning to sacrifice backward compatibility in future versions of the Mac OS.


The article quotes Hancock as saying "If we have to pick between backward compatibility and new functions, we’re voting for new functions." As amplified through wire service stories and untold generations of mailing list and Usenet postings, the popular perception now seems to be that Apple has said no current Macintosh programs will run under Mac OS 8.

That’s simply untrue, and understanding why is not much of an intellectual exercise. Apple would be committing corporate suicide if all existing Macintosh software ceased to operate under future versions of the Mac OS – this would actually be a worse decision than if Apple were to decide to abandon the existing Mac OS in favor of a version of Unix or Microsoft Windows. Developers would abandon the Mac platform in droves and, more importantly, many users would undoubtedly give up on Apple in disgust. After all, most Macintosh users prefer the Mac for one primary reason: the software. If that software all ceases to work, the Macintosh loses its most critical advantage.

So what is Apple saying? Basically, nothing new: incremental updates to the Mac OS will be released every six months or so, and as new features from Copland are introduced (such as pre-emptive multi-tasking, a new microkernel, a new file system, etc.) some Macintosh programs will have to be updated to run under the new system software. This is not news: Apple has been sending these signals since the developer briefings on Copland in 1993. Certain types of programs will be more prone to problems than others, the most notable being control panels and many extensions, plus applications that rely on undocumented system calls.

In the past, Apple has often bent over backwards to ensure existing applications run under the latest system software. Though this isn’t always possible, in a number of cases Apple has let a particular bug or undocumented behavior remain in the system because a major software program broke when the problem was fixed. The only shift in Apple’s stance seems to be that Apple may no longer allow its system software to be held over a barrel by applications and software that rely on undocumented calls or other chancy, non-standard programming practices. Apple has done this before with various components of the system software (including the Finder, Sound Manager, QuickDraw, and others), and although an uproar usually ensues at first, the operating system must move ahead somehow, and this is a time-honored method. So time-honored, in fact, it’s used by most other operating systems, including Unix, Windows 95, Windows NT, VMS, and others.

There has been speculation that the Examiner article is an indication Apple plans to substitute the BeOS for future versions of the Mac OS. So far as I can determine, the situation between Apple and Be is largely unchanged, despite numerous far-flung claims from both Apple and Be users. (See TidBITS-343.) In the meantime, Be has said (but not promised) single and multiprocessor versions of the BeOS for Power Macintosh should be available in early 1997.

If there’s anything to be learned from this incident (and similar recent media snafus regarding Apple), it’s that mainstream technical reporting regarding the Macintosh must be taken with a grain of salt. This is not necessarily a reflection on reporters or publications – I don’t know these people and do not wish to cast unwarranted aspersions. However, the process a mainstream story on Apple Computer goes through is analogous to a message passing through a line of twenty people by being whispered from ear to ear. More often than not, the message received by the twentieth person is quite unlike the message sent by the first. With the mainstream press, the line is comprised of reporters, editors, staffers, proofreaders, copy editors, and correspondents, and the Macintosh community is usually at the end of the line.

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