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MacHack: The Ghost of Macintosh Future

The MacHack developers conference – the 17th of which was held last week in Dearborn, Michigan – is tremendously unusual. The keynote starts at midnight, wireless (and wired) Ethernet access is available throughout the lobby of the venue (the Holiday Inn Fairlane), and the age of the attendees ranges from those in elementary school to those approaching retirement. But despite all this, the most salient fact about MacHack for the non-programmer is that it shows where the Macintosh industry will be heading. Macworld Expo is the ghost of Macintosh present, MacHack is the ghost of Macintosh future. (And much as historical trivia is fun to bat around, there won’t be a ghost of Macintosh past conference as long as the Macintosh world remains viable and continues to move forward.)


People — For those of us who have come to at least the last few iterations of MacHack, the absences of other long-standing attendees was initially disturbing. Well-known programmer after well-known programmer didn’t show up, but as the reasons came forth, it turned out that most of the missing people had been kept away by work deadlines, not a lack of interest in the Mac or a switch to another platform. Attendance in general was down – not surprising in this economic climate – but a large number of first timers helped to swell the ranks to a total of about 270 attendees. A good number of these folks were Unix users, and although Mac OS X’s impact on the overall base of Mac users is still in an early phase, it’s clear that within a few years, the migration of Unix and Windows users to the Mac will make the Mac community significantly more diverse. Whether or not it will also be larger in proportion to the overall computing world remains unclear, but there’s no question that Mac OS X improves Apple’s chances of increasing market share.

Related to the influx of Unix users were the two keynotes – the first from publisher Tim O’Reilly of O’Reilly and Associates and the second from Slashdot’s Rob Malda (known online as CmdrTaco). Tim has recently become a Mac user thanks to Mac OS X and a Titanium PowerBook G4 given to him by Apple, and O’Reilly is publishing ever more Macintosh books as their core audience of Unix geeks increasingly starts relying on Mac OS X. O’Reilly is even holding a Mac OS X conference in late September of 2002 – I’ll be speaking there.




Another positive sign for the future was the presence of the many "yoot" – students at all stages of education who attended the sessions, networked with the older programmers, and participated in the Hack Contest. Although some have attended more MacHacks than I have, many others were at their first MacHack. That’s just too cool – there isn’t another industry event that I know of where kids are not only encouraged to attend, but are treated as peers by the best in the business. Talk about investing in your future.

Of course, the yoot who attend MacHack are, as with the children of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Woebegon, above average, with a significant level of Macintosh and Unix knowledge. Nowhere was that more clear than with Adam Atlas, a 12-year-old who took second place in the Best Hack Contest (more on that next week) and presented a session on REALbasic, and Andy Furnas, a 14-year-old from our home town of Ithaca who is a member of next year’s MacHack organizing committee. These bright, engaging kids are creating their own future, hopefully in the Macintosh world, and if MacHack can play a role in that, all the better.

Last, I was heartened to realize that no matter what the future holds for the Macintosh, if MacHack is any indication, community will remain important. The Macintosh itself has many distinguishing features, but a strong, vital community is difficult or impossible to create intentionally; let’s make sure we don’t lose the one we have.

Hardware — The selection of hardware was also indicative of where we’ll be heading, at least in some ways. Titanium PowerBook G4s and iBooks dominated, with a few scattered PowerBook G3s and colored iBooks thrown in for good measure. Obviously, portable computers are far more likely to be taken to a conference than a desktop machine (although Jorg Brown brought a new iMac that was animated for the hack contest), but a significant number of the programmers said that their Titanium PowerBook G4 was also their primary machine. Plus, a number of Unix users who have switched to the Mac said that part of the decision, after Mac OS X itself, was the fact that Apple makes cool laptops. Computing is becoming ever more portable, and although there’s a constant trade-off between size and screen real estate, it’s worth keeping an eye on anything that improves the portable computing experience.

AirPort cards were nearly ubiquitous, though the volunteers who set up the MacHack network still provided Ethernet hubs at many of the tables in the hotel lobby for the folks with the earlier models of the Titanium PowerBook G4, which had terrible AirPort range (reportedly somewhat better in the most recent models). Wireless networking has been on a steep adoption curve ever since Apple introduced AirPort several years ago. It’s appearing in many locations, such as trade shows, libraries, and airports, and the way things are going, the lack of wireless Internet access will become more surprising than its presence within a few years. Perhaps we’ll see it on airplanes, in supermarkets, and even city parks – I’d say the sky is the limit, but in fact, the limiting factors for wireless networking are more physical and political (see "Peering into 2002’s Tea Leaves" in TidBITS-612 for my wireless prognostication).



Software — On the software side of things, Mac OS X was equally as prevalent as Apple’s newer laptops. A few people were still running Mac OS 9, and one brave soul even brought a PowerBook Duo 280c running System 7.6 for his hack (which modified the Chooser’s display of file servers so you could tell which ones supported AppleShare over TCP/IP rather than AppleTalk), but it was clear that developers had taken the none-too-subtle hint from Apple that there’s no point in developing for Mac OS 9 any more.

Mac OS 9’s status for developers was hammered home during a tongue-in-cheek session from Apple’s Keith Stattenfield, who was the development lead on Mac OS 9. His session, entitled "The Future of Mac OS 9," consisted mostly of slides listing euphemisms for "dead." Keith summed up with an emphatic, "It’s dead!" and a mock-concerned "Really?" from the audience had the entire room laughing. On a more serious note, Keith did reassure developers that Classic will be around for years, and bugs in Mac OS 9 are still being investigated to improve Classic, QuickTime, other components, and even Mac OS 9 itself if a sufficiently serious problem is discovered. Plus, Apple is looking at ways of improving Classic – I hope they’ll consider letting users save the state of Classic like you can do in Connectix’s Virtual PC rather than starting it up and shutting it down all the time.

It is worth noting that although the developers were using Mac OS X, and I didn’t hear much complaining about the basics of the operating system, there were plenty of specific complaints about details of Mac OS X. In many of those cases, it was clear that Apple knew about the problems and was working hard to fix them – Mac OS X is a huge project, and it takes time to implement, test, and integrate fixes. The next major release of Mac OS X, codenamed Jaguar, should include a wide variety of improvements when it appears in a few months.

Keynote Thoughts — As a closing thought, I’d like to pass on the list of editorial filters that Tim O’Reilly said the editors at O’Reilly and Associates apply when determining whether they should cover a new technology. To catch O’Reilly’s interest, a technology should:

  • be network related (by network, I think they mean networks of people, not computers),
  • engender a real need for information,
  • have grassroots support,
  • inspire passion,
  • have deeper social implications,
  • have professional practitioners, and
  • have a possible business ecology.

It also helps O’Reilly’s decision if the technology is also:

  • disruptive, not just evolutionary,
  • enabling of other technologies,
  • at the right point in its life-cycle, and
  • being adopted at an accelerating rate.

It’s easy to see how these requirements applied to the Internet back in the early 1990s, and Tim said that he felt the next big thing was going to be looking at the Internet as a platform rather than a network (this is what people are thinking about when they talk about Web services). Now think about how these filters might apply to Mac OS X. For the most part, it meets the requirements, though I’m not sure it’s possible to say that it’s a disruptive technology at the moment (at least in the sense O’Reilly means – it’s certainly been disruptive to many people in the more common usage of the word).

If we were to take MacHack to the logical extreme, we’d all be spending time in groups of friends and colleagues, continually inventing the future with tiny Mac OS X-based Macs that exist as much on the Internet as they do in the physical world. Science fiction? Certainly, but the same would likely have been said not all that many years ago of where we are now.

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