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MacHacking Mac OS X

This year’s MacHack developers conference marked what I thought might be a pivotal point in the Macintosh industry. Mac OS X has been out for about 90 days, so developers have had some time to become familiar with it, and experienced users have started to identify Mac OS X’s omissions and problems. I was curious to see how many people would be using Mac OS X, how many hacks would be done for Mac OS X, and what the general tenor regarding Mac OS X would be. Although MacHack was tremendously enjoyable as usual, trying to treat it as a Magic 8 Ball about Mac OS X elicited only "Future murky. Try again later."


MacHack started off with the traditional midnight keynote as a panel discussion with seven members of the team that originally created the Macintosh. At first glance, it seemed an odd decision. Why would you invite people whose contributions to the Mac happened as many as 20 years ago to a conference where one of the major topics was bound to be a version of the operating system that shipped 90 days ago? Aside from the general entertainment value, as the members of the panel told stories and bantered with one another, I gradually realized that the keynote worked on a deeper level – a symbolic passing of the torch from the early Macintosh creators to the developers of today’s Macintosh world. Technology tends not to have a long lifespan, but in the Mac world, and particularly at an event like MacHack where attendees return year after year, there’s a strong sense of history. Bringing people like Andy Hertzfeld, Bill Atkinson, Caroline Rose, Randy Wigginton, Donn Denman, Jef Raskin, and Daniel Kottke to reminisce provided a connection with the past at the same time we’re moving forward into the future of Mac OS X.

The second night’s keynote by Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak was even more enjoyable, because Woz in the flesh turns out to be truly warm, personable, and playful. He regaled the audience with tales of his hacks, pranks, and practical jokes (a number of which revolved around perforated sheets of $2 bills he uses whenever there’s an opportunity for some fun, since many Americans don’t recognize $2 bills, and far fewer realize you can buy them in perforated sheets). Interestingly, Woz said that he basically never played jokes on Steve Jobs; I came away with the impression that Jobs simply wasn’t the sort of person one did that too, and even an inveterate prankster like Woz recognized that.


Reflections of Personality — Meeting these people was interesting not just from a historical standpoint, but also because it enabled us to see the reflections of their personalities in the Macintosh. Andy Hertzfeld imbued the Mac with his enthusiasm and said that he explicitly tried to bring Woz’s sense of playfulness to the Macintosh project. Bill Atkinson brought passion to the Mac, Jef Raskin gave it his intellectual rigor and desire for elegance, and Caroline Rose’s contributions added clarity and attention to detail.

There’s no question many others put their mark on the Mac, the most important of whom was undoubtedly Steve Jobs himself. Without the ways he challenged others to do what seemed impossible and the support he gave the project (particularly during the first few lean years), there’s no question the Macintosh would never have succeeded. Many of the stories we heard were about Steve Jobs, and even accounting for the speakers’ different opinions, the picture that emerged was of a man who needs to control as much of the world around him as possible.

Mac OS X’s Challenge — Jobs’s need for control has seemingly increased over the years; as a small example, he’s gone from insisting that programmers were artists who should sign their work to eliminating credits from About boxes in current Apple software. Herein lies a significant problem for Mac OS X. Like the original Macintosh, it’s the work of many people, and yet, the pretty face that Mac OS X presents to the world doesn’t seem to reflect those people. Instead, it’s about Steve Jobs and his lieutenant, Avie Tevanian. All too often, when there’s something about Mac OS X that is arguable at best (such as the level to which it uses filename extensions for linking documents to their applications), the reason for the decision comes down to "because Avie said so" or "because Steve wants it that way." Steve and Avie may be brilliant, and they may be necessary for Mac OS X’s success, but neither means they aren’t capable of making huge mistakes.

For the most part, I didn’t detect significant enthusiasm for Mac OS X among the MacHack developer community. Few people were using it on their primary work machine, and only about 10 percent of the hacks submitted to the hack contest required Mac OS X. The people who were the most excited about Mac OS X were, unsurprisingly, those who like and use both the Mac and Unix, and even then it was Unix that made the difference, not the Macintosh aspects of Mac OS X. Woz and the members of the original Mac team concurred with this basic attitude – they too liked Mac OS X’s Unix underpinnings but made negative comments about the Aqua interface. Woz was particularly blunt, saying that he felt Mac OS X "wasn’t ready for prime time."

As a friend put it, right now Mac OS X feels like an art project, not an operating system with innovative human interface design and rigorous usability testing. If the MacHack demonstration and discussion of Microsoft’s forthcoming Windows XP from some ex-Macintosh programmers is indicative, Microsoft has embraced some of the design attitudes that made the Macintosh great. And if that’s true, Apple will need to set its sights ever higher or risk being beaten at its own game.

Apple is cognizant of this concern. At one session, the MacHack attendees had no trouble working up a Top 100 Issues with Mac OS X list, but at the next day’s Apple feedback session, Apple’s Steve Glass and Tim Holmes were able to brush off almost all minor criticisms with "yes, we know, and we’re working on it." That answer is deceptively important, because the other very real possibility for some of the glaring omissions and mistakes in Mac OS X was that Apple didn’t see a problem at all. The question that remains is exactly when Apple will address any given annoyance, but the four bug fix releases of Mac OS X that have arrived in the last 90 days are indicative of forward motion. The obvious date for a more major release is July’s Macworld Expo in New York City, and after that, Macworld Expo in San Francisco next January.

What Apple has going for it – and what I think Microsoft can never replicate with Windows – is the hyper-informed and interested Macintosh user and developer community. We care about what happens to Apple and to the Macintosh, and only by continuing the kind of feedback that flooded into Apple during Mac OS X’s beta cycle can we help ensure that Mac OS X evolves an interface we want to use in favor of anything else.

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