Mac OS X Leaves the Station
Apple’s annual Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) is an odd beast with the head of a developer, the torso of a product marketing manager, and the hindquarters of a PR flack. On the surface, the conference is the penultimate Mac geek gathering (behind next month’s MacHack, of course), with thousands of Macintosh developers in attendance, including many international folks from the countries that together make up about half of Apple’s market and provide numerous products to the Mac community. But Apple’s goal in holding the conference is as much marketing and PR as passing on technical details about forthcoming Apple technologies. Apple realizes that without a strong and enthusiastic developer community, the Macintosh is no more likely to succeed than a penguin is to fly.
However, developers are often suspicious of being the focus of a marketing effort, and Apple’s frequent technology flip-flops over the years have only enhanced that minor paranoia. Given the undeniable importance of Mac developers to the entire Macintosh community, I’m mostly interested in determining the mood of the developers who have attended WWDC, since even more so than Apple, these developers are the people who will determine the success of the Macintosh as it goes forward.
Heavy Freight — In his keynote, Steve Jobs commented that the Mac OS X train is leaving the station, and Apple hammered home that message during the entire conference. Mac OS X is the future of the Mac OS, Apple has been working on it non-stop for the last few years, and despite reasonable and necessary refinements and associated delays, it’s on the track that Apple intends. There was no hint of waffling or hedging bets with the current version of the Mac OS, and developers were strongly encouraged to hold off slightly on any planned third-quarter releases of their products for Mac OS 9 and instead release fully Carbonized versions that can run on Mac OS 9 and Mac OS X early next year. As the badge on Apple’s developer Web site boasted, "Last year Mac OS X was a promise. This year it’s a reality."
In the last two years, the developers I’ve spoken with after WWDC have been cautiously optimistic about Apple’s plans for Mac OS X, but they were decidedly unwilling to commit until they saw Apple’s own level of commitment. Their belief that Apple won’t back down from Mac OS X has been increasing over time, culminating most recently with January’s Macworld Expo keynote promise that Apple would ship Mac OS X on all Macs in January of 2001. Developers don’t mind taking risks on new technologies, but they want to make sure that Apple is betting heavily on the same horse.
It’s clear now that Apple is going full speed ahead on Mac OS X, despite some minor delays in the schedule (such as the middle of this year seeing a "public beta" of Mac OS X rather than a "customer release" or "pre-order sales" and the January 2001 release being an "installation option" rather than "shipping on all Macs"). Remember, everything is harder than it seems, and the complexity of bringing an entirely new operating system to a 16-year-old platform boggles the mind. I’d far rather see Apple make Mac OS X functional, stable, and polished than have access to it a few months earlier.
Reports from the many sessions devoted to Mac OS X during WWDC indicate that developers have increasingly been won over, and cautious optimism has in many cases morphed into outright enthusiasm. The fact that Apple has told the same story for several years in a row and is actually showing working previews of Mac OS X also helped cut down on the complaints from previous years in large part because developers realize that the low-level technical battles have either been won or lost, and the push now is to ship.
Either way, there’s little point in playing armchair quarterback, at least until the public beta ships in a few more months. Reports from one of the feedback sessions claimed Apple was investing in a system that would enable much better online feedback and support forums than they currently have for managing the feedback from the public beta process. Such a system would be a major step for Apple, which has long been known for being indifferent to external feedback, and even when the company has solicited feedback in the past, the information has been ignored and any followup forgotten.
Mac OS X Details — Other bits of information about Mac OS X include the fact that the Developer Preview 4, which was given to all the developers at WWDC, includes a version of Microsoft Internet Explorer designed for Mac OS X, showing support from Microsoft’s Macintosh Internet software team. Mac OS X will also support the Java 2 Platform, potentially making a Mac running Mac OS X a preferred Java machine, rather than a reviled one. System requirements for Mac OS X were set at any Mac using a PowerPC G3 or PowerPC G4 processor (though Macs with upgrade cards are always a question) with a minimum of 64 MB of RAM. Finally, Apple was careful to call the final release "Mac OS X 1.0," which is important because it implies that this is an entirely new product, rather than just the next in line from Mac OS 9. Since Mac OS X will change a vast amount with regard to how people interact with their Macs, it’s important to reset the version counter and hopefully bring expectations line as well.
WebObjects for (Almost) Free — The other big news at WWDC was Apple’s announcement that they’re lowering the price of WebObjects 4.5, the company’s powerful Web application server software, from $50,000 to $700. Admittedly, that’s for the version of WebObjects that allows unlimited usage on one server; some more-restricted versions of WebObjects were previously available for under $50,000. Still, there’s no question that dropping the WebObjects price so significantly will create a tremendous level of enthusiasm among the consultant and integrator communities, since they can now offer WebObjects-based solutions to customers for far less than many competing products, rather than the converse.
Even if Apple has put the price of WebObjects within the reach of mere mortals, that doesn’t mean WebObjects has suddenly become a user-level development environment. Though few dispute the power of WebObjects, developers I’ve spoken with say it’s a huge and complex system that takes significant time and effort to understand fully. That’s not unusual for products in its class but may not be what many Macintosh users expect.
Nonetheless, along with the price drop, Apple devoted numerous sessions at WWDC to WebObjects, making it clear that the company wants many more people to start using WebObjects, which until this point has been kept away from a large potential audience by its price, system requirements, and a lack of marketing emphasis from Apple. Apple has succeeded in the consumer, education, creative, and small business markets, so it’s possible that the WebObjects price drop may signal the beginning of a long-term plan to approach the lucrative business market, something I suggested back when Apple first purchased NeXT in late 1996.
WebObjects 4.5 currently runs on Mac OS X Server, Windows NT/2000, Solaris, and HP-UX systems, although Apple announced that WebObjects 5 would be written entirely in Java to open up WebObjects to other operating systems.
The Next QuickTime — The popular QuickTime remains one of Apple’s crown jewels, and the company made sure that developers realized the importance of the technology by announcing that more than 50 million copies of the QuickTime 4 player software had been distributed for both the Mac and Windows. Apple also showed the next version of QuickTime, which included cross-platform support for MPEG-1 and MPEG-2 video, Flash 4 Web animations, and improved QuickTime VR with fully spherical views. QuickTime will also use QDesign software that support the G4 chip’s Velocity Engine for significantly faster music encoding. This next version of QuickTime is due to ship sometime mid-year, and reportedly may also do away with the hated "drawer" that helped give QuickTime Player one of Apple’s most awkward interfaces (along with Mac OS 9’s Sherlock 2).
Looking toward WWDC 2001 — With this year’s WWDC over, the exhausted attendees are straggling home to ponder everything they’ve heard. From the extremely upbeat impressions I received from many developers, I think next year’s WWDC may be even more heavily attended. Even this year there were numerous Unix developers curious to see if Mac OS X might be their ticket to a mass market audience, and if Apple sticks to the self-imposed schedule, Mac OS X may attract an ever-increasing number of developers to the Macintosh platform. And that’s good for all of us.