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Keying in Great NeXTpectations

As you might imagine after reading Adam’s and Geoff’s essays in TidBITS-360, last week’s Macworld Expo buzzed with talk about Apple’s acquisition of NeXT Software. Many people attended the keynote, hoping to learn solid details about the new OS, codenamed Rhapsody, which Apple plans to create using NeXT technology. Although I left the three-hour keynote with a pad full of notes and my mind brimming with details, several days later I found that my analysis agreed with that of most others: the keynote didn’t tell us much that we didn’t already know.

The keynote did not fully address several of the more important questions surrounding Rhapsody. Although Gil Amelio emphasized the importance of backwards compatibility, it appears Rhapsody will only run on PowerPC Macs "sold by Apple and its licensees today." Apparently Apple is still figuring out what to do about older Power Macs and 68K Macs. Another big unknown may be resolved more favorably: Apple plans for today’s System 7.x applications to run in Rhapsody natively, not in some sort of emulation mode, though this capability may not be fully present in Rhapsody’s "premier" release. We can also expect Rhapsody to look and feel like a Macintosh, though with interface changes and enhancements.

Apple is sticking to its plan of releasing System 7.x updates every six months, though the keynote revealed few hard facts. Still, between the keynote and Apple’s Web site, I was able to piece together some additional specifics. I’d like to add the caveat that I always take announcements about future software releases with at least a grain (and sometimes a shaker) of salt.

Coming Soon to a Mac Near You — Apple plans to release Mac OS 7.6, codenamed Harmony, on 31-Jan-97. This release has a new installer and integrates a number of currently-existing components with a few new ones. A quick rundown of the highlights includes QuickTime 2.5, QuickDraw 3D 1.0.6 (PowerPC only), QuickDraw GX 1.1.5, LaserWriter 8.4.2, and a more sophisticated Extensions Manager. I’m looking forward to checking out the OpenDoc Essentials kit, which includes a number of OpenDoc parts. Mac OS 7.6 will run on most modern Macintoshes, but not on 68020- or 68000-based machines, nor on the SE/30, IIx, or IIcx. However, owners of 68K-based Macs have less incentive to upgrade due to the now-infamous CFM-68K bug (see TidBITS-356), which sidelines OpenDoc, Cyberdog, and LaserWriter 8.4 on 68K machines. Apple has not yet indicated when the CFM-68K problem might be fixed.

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It seems that Apple is using this release as a revenue generator. Look to pay an estimated retail price of $99 for Mac OS 7.6; $69 if you can prove you already own System 7.5 or 7.5.x . (Add $30 to either price to purchase the floppy disk version.) Those who purchased a Mac on or after 07-Dec-96 should check out the Mac OS Up-To-Date program to see if they qualify for an even deeper discount.

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No doubt there will be many ways to acquire the update; to purchase it from within the United States, call Apple at 800/742-1926.

Increasing the Tempo — Mac OS 7.6 strikes me as somewhat dull, mostly because much of it is already available separately. Tempo, due out in about six months, should be more exciting in that it will include many elements of the Copland Finder, which will run native on the PowerPC (Copland was the codename of Apple’s formerly planned Mac OS 8). Folders will be "springloaded" in such a way that it’s easy to file items multiple levels deep within a folder. The Finder will offer new views such as one where files sort by creation date and one where files and folders look and act like Launcher buttons.

The keynote demonstration also made note of a change in the upper right hand corner of the window. Today, the zoom box is the only control at the upper right; in Tempo, the upper right will also sport a "window shade" box that can be clicked in order to roll up the window so only the title bar shows. (You can get a sneak peak of this feature with Aaron and Kaleidoscope; one new addition in Tempo will be the ability to Option-click the window shade box to roll up all open windows.) If you don’t need to upgrade to 7.6 and operate on a limited budget, you may wish to wait for Tempo, which is likely to have similar pricing.


Singing Apple’s Song — In mid-1997, Apple plans to ship a developer’s release of Rhapsody, and Apple says you can look for a premier release to general Macintosh users in time for the new year, although many industry observers find this timetable unrealistically ambitious. Apple also plans to ship another version of System 7 by the beginning of 1998, codenamed Allegro. By mid-1998, there will be another version of System 7, codenamed Sonata, and a more solidified version of Rhapsody. There’s currently little information about what technologies might appear in Sonata and Allegro.

I expect that most users will not take advantage of Rhapsody’s world of protected memory and pre-emptive multi-tasking until mid-1998, and that world still has some big unknowns. According to Apple’s Web site, Rhapsody will incorporate Display PostScript, though with the addition of some of Apple’s display technologies like ColorSync and QuickDraw GX typography (though not necessarily all of QuickDraw GX). This may mean – at least in part – that Macs running Rhapsody will generate their screen displays using PostScript, giving PostScript-dependent designers better WYSIWYG than the Mac offered previously. Apple has always emphasized multimedia, and they plan to enhance that position by placing optimized versions of QTML (QuickTime Multimedia Layer) technology in Rhapsody. Perhaps the biggest unknown is what kernel the operating system will center on, a decision that Apple must make in the near future.

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Salting the Future — For Apple to ship Rhapsody as promised depends on Apple and NeXT employees efficiently joining forces. In addition, NeXT developers (of which a number attended Macworld Expo to check out the latest Mac software) must be brought into the fold, and all developers will require significant technical information and assistance. Finally, Mac users and the general public must get so excited about Rhapsody that they are practically drooling for it. Not only must Rhapsody provide the "relevant compelling solutions" promised by Steve Jobs at the keynote, but for Rhapsody to succeed, people must understand these solutions and believe in them.

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