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Waxing Rhapsodic: New Technologies from Apple

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In an effort to reassure the Macintosh developer community in the wake of recent layoffs and restructuring, Apple Computer has been privately demonstrating a host of cutting-edge new technologies slated to appear in its forthcoming NeXT-based operating system, codenamed Rhapsody. Though none of these new features have been finalized, TidBITS was fortunate enough to attend one of Apple’s sneak previews for programmers and developers, and the demonstrations were truly spectacular instances of Apple showmanship.

Also Known As… System 7 first introduced Macintosh users to aliases, tiny files that point back to an original item, like a program, document, folder, or disk. Rhapsody will take aliases to the next level by integrating them with both the Appearance Manager (scheduled to appear in Mac OS 8) and Macintosh Easy Open, enabling Rhapsody users to work in a predominantly Windows or Unix environment without being detected. “We’ve heard about sites, particularly in corporate America, where Mac users are being forced to give up their Macs and switch to another platform,” said an Apple representative. “Rhapsody’s new Alias Manager lets these Apple customers continue to use their Macintoshes in those environments under an assumed identity.” The new Alias Manager, codenamed AKA, can give a Macintosh the appearance of a Windows 95, Windows NT, or Sun OS operating system, complete with functional interface elements, all tied to customized hot keys that let Macintosh users switch between interfaces when their supervisors have left the room. Although the new Alias Manager cannot fully emulate other operating systems, it’s smart enough to know when its out of its league, and simulates a disk problem, network error, program crash, or other commonplace event for the simulated operating system if it gets too close to its limits. “At no point does it give away that you’re using a Mac.” When asked how many users are expected to rely on the new Alias Manager, an Apple spokesperson declined to give specific figures, but predicted large numbers, especially after a planned alliance with the Federal Witness Protection Program, noting Apple was already planning an advertising campaign for the year 2000, entitled “We’re everywhere.”

How Does That Make You Feel? Recognizing that modern operating systems are becoming increasingly sophisticated and difficult to deal with, Apple also demonstrated an early version of the Empathy Manager, codenamed Troi, which lets the Macintosh running Rhapsody use a PlainTalk microphone and a video camera (like a Connectix QuickCam) to sense and respond to a user’s moods and emotions. If the user is in a good mood, the Empathy Manager will change the screen’s appearance to happy colors, change the system beep to joyous tones, and even make the Internet work faster. If you’re in a bad mood, the Empathy Manager will try to be supportive, offering to open windows, edit email, let the user win a few games of solitaire, or even suggest a well-deserved nap. Like many of Rhapsody’s technologies, the Empathy Manager is Internet-ready; using a protocol called ThinkTalk, Macs with the Telepathy Manager can pool mood information about their users, enabling them to more effectively formulate work strategies, delay email that might upset their user, or even request prescription medication via a secure Web server.

Internet for the Rest Of Us — Although Apple recently discontinued its Performa brand of computers, Rhapsody is scheduled to include technologies specifically intended for low-end, non-technical Macintosh users. First among these is GeekWatch, an Internet utility designed to filter out confusing and overly technical information on the Internet. “The Web offers a vast amount of information, but a lot of that information isn’t relevant to many non-technical professions, like hairdressers, rock musicians, and marketing executives,” said an Apple representative. GeekWatch monitors information as it comes into your computer from the Internet and compares it to a user profile built up gradually from the contents of Internet sites visited by a particular user. If the content of a site is deemed too technical, that data is blocked by GeekWatch. As an example, someone who was mainly interested in gardening information who accidently loaded a Web page on Java programming, a GeekWatch dialog appears with a smiley-face icon and the phrase “This site blocked by GeekWatch!” (Version 1.1 will include translations for technical terms; in the previous example, an Apple Guide window would appear beneath the smiley-face icon, explaining that Java is “essentially another term for coffee, which programmers need to survive.” At this point, the Empathy Manager could kick in and suggest that the user go brew a cup.) The Apple representative commented, “We think this will make the Internet less intimidating for real people, and have a beneficial side effect of letting real geeks talk to each other without confusing anyone.”

The Blame Game — Finally, the most fundamental – and perhaps most controversial – new functionality scheduled to appear in Rhapsody is the Conspiracy Manager, a comprehensive set of low-level object classes designed to handle errors and crashes for all programs and services. The Conspiracy Manager allows programmers to have extensive control over the appearance, timing, and impacts of their errors. With the preemptive multitasking capabilities provided by Rhapsody’s Mach kernel, errors and crashes can appear to be caused by any program or software component running under Rhapsody. Thus, a programmer could release a program that blamed all its crashes on the ever-popular whipping boy Microsoft Word, Java, the dreaded “extension conflict,” or even a particular Internet site. Acknowledging that the best way to hide a conspiracy is to admit to it up front, Apple representatives declined to comment on how the Conspiracy Manager might make Macintosh use less intuitive for users, although they did note that Apple had to conform to industry standards for software problems, and the Conspiracy Manager was vital to the job security of technical support workers around the world. Apple representatives also refused to comment on whether Apple was considering licensing the Conspiracy Manager to other companies. “Um…,” the Apple rep nodded. “Could be.”

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