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O’Reilly Mac OS X Conference Report

Last week’s O’Reilly Mac OS X Conference marked the rise of the first major new Macintosh conference in years. Luminaries from the Macintosh and Unix worlds, brought together by Apple’s melding of the Mac OS and Unix in Mac OS X, mingled with a similarly eclectic mix of several hundred attendees. I found my three days of attending sessions, chatting with speakers and attendees, browsing the small room of exhibitors, and giving several presentations both enjoyable and illuminating, though the experience was somewhat marred by logistical mistakes.



Attendees — Though it would be glib to categorize the attendees as a target audience of "alpha geeks" (to use Tim O’Reilly’s phrase), the reality proved more interesting. A few of the usual suspects from conferences like MacHack were present, and a number of speakers also hailed from the traditional base of Macintosh power users. Similarly, I got the impression that a few people there were curious about Mac OS X, though they were still using other variants of Unix. Most of the attendees seemed to fall between those two extremes. When Tim O’Reilly took an informal poll of the audience during the second day’s keynote, about 75 percent of the attendees raised their hands to his question of how many in the audience used Unix before Mac OS X. But when he turned the question around, asking how many used the Mac OS before Mac OS X, the percentage remained almost identical, and at least from my vantage point on the stage, it seemed as though roughly the same people were raising their hands. One member of the audience summed it up later, saying, "I used Unix at work and the Mac at home." Four or five people even said they’d been NeXT users – it was nice to see such a large percentage of the NeXT user population represented at the conference.

The technical savviness of the attendees was high – much more so than a Macworld Expo, for instance, and I was particularly struck by how technical those people who had come to Mac OS X from the Unix world were. They clearly appreciated Mac OS X, but the windows you saw open on their Desktops generally belonged to the Terminal, not to the Finder or other applications. It’s not surprising; I think it’s safe to say that people who identify themselves as being Unix users are likely to be network administrators, programmers, scientists, and so on – all people who would be using Unix because of the power and flexibility it provides them and for whom Mac OS X-native programs provide additional, not replacement, capabilities.

Oddly enough, these folks were also far more likely to have decorated their laptops with a variety of stickers, something you almost never see done by traditional Macintosh users. I suspect it may stem from the fact that many of the stickers were covering logos, since they would prefer not to advertise for the PC vendors whose Intel-powered computers generally run Windows, not Unix, whereas traditional Macintosh users aren’t perturbed about promoting the Macintosh.

Keynotes and Sessions — Although there was a small collection of vendors with exhibit tables during two of the days, the conference launched with a day of lengthy tutorials and then centered around a schedule that started with a keynote each day, followed by an extensive slate of sessions.

Appropriately enough for the first conference to focus on Mac OS X, the keynotes primarily provided history and background. The first day brought a brief talk from Tim O’Reilly about paradigm shifts and why he likes Mac OS X. Then David Pogue trotted everyone through an amusing history of the Macintosh, ending with some overly safe predictions for the future. Apple’s Jordan Hubbard anchored the second day’s keynote, giving a history of Unix and capping it with a look at how Mac OS X was the Unix world’s best chance at regaining a place on the desktop. Then Jordan, Tim, O’Reilly editor Derrick Story, and I participated in a panel discussion about the convergence of the Macintosh and Unix worlds. For the third day, Wilfredo Sanchez Vega, who had worked at Apple, gave a talk about the origins of the Darwin project.

Though it made rhetorical sense to make sure Unix users had a sense of the Macintosh history, and vice versa, it felt a little forced. After all, most of the people in the O’Reilly audience have been in the computer industry long enough to know most of this history. The presenters were the saving grace – David Pogue remains one of the Mac world’s best performers (he showed a hilarious unofficial movie of the Newton group setting up and knocking down thousands of Newton modems like dominos after Apple cancelled the Newton project), and hearing history from people like Jordan Hubbard who had lived through it brought it to life in a way that wouldn’t otherwise have worked.

O’Reilly divided the sessions into nine tracks: Mac OS X in the Large, Programming, Multimedia/The iApps, Unix, User Interface, Servers and Networking, Hardware, Emerging Topics, and Products & Services. I found the variety somewhat frustrating, since there were often several conflicting talks I would have liked to hear. The variety also made the conference feel a little unfocused at times.

That said, most of the sessions I attended were excellent, especially Stuart Cheshire’s overview of Rendezvous and Matt Neuburg’s look at automating Mac OS X. Less successful were a pair of sessions that sounded as though they’d be looking at techniques and utilities for enhancing the Mac OS X experience. The first fell prey in part to hardware difficulties connecting to the projector, and both ended up focusing almost entirely on Unix command line utilities and related tricks. Nowhere was the gap that remains between Macintosh and Unix users of Mac OS X more prevalent – I can’t tell you how dull I found it to listen to someone explaining a four-line shell command while I was squinting from the back of the room to read tiny monospaced text in a Terminal window. Unix demos terribly. However, it was clear from the reactions of people around me that those who were at home with Mac OS X’s Unix foundations found the Unix-oriented tricks fascinating. O’Reilly could have done a better job describing these sessions.

More lamentably, with only 45 minutes for each speaker, the sessions were simply too short. Almost without exception, every speaker I talked to expressed frustration at having to cover material extremely quickly, and even then, there often wasn’t enough time left for questions. Some speakers also said that they’d had to cut down the length of their talks to fit their allotted time, turning what was otherwise an in-depth talk into more of an overview. I suspect O’Reilly simply tried to fit too many talks into a relatively short amount of time. Fewer, longer talks would have reduced the variety, but would, I think, have improved the quality and utility of the experience.

Wireless Community — For me, the high point of the conference was talking with the people present. The mezzanine level of the hotel held tables, chairs, and the all-important power strips for recharging batteries, and O’Reilly’s network administrators made sure the entire area had wireless network coverage for Internet access. Although there was a room of Internet-connected Macs provided by Apple, it went almost unused, since everyone relied on the wireless network and mingled in the public area.

Despite the technical skills of the O’Reilly folks like Cliff Skolnick and Rob Flickenger, the wireless network was plagued with annoying problems that they eventually traced to what appears to be a bug with Mac OS X 10.2.1’s networking stack. Apparently, if one machine on a wireless network uses what’s called "promiscuous mode" (as it would if you use Unix utilities like tcpdump or ngrep, or another network monitoring tool like EtherPEG) and is also using the firewall built into Jaguar, it could cause other packets on the network to be dropped. Long-time Macintosh networking guru Peter Sichel (author of IPNetRouter) confirmed this, offered a possible workaround, and noted that it’s a flaw in BSD’s networking stack that can affect wired networks as well. Hopefully Apple will fix this one soon.



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Looking Toward Tomorrow — Right after Cliff and Rob finished demonstrating the network bug they’d isolated, I had to finish up at the conference and drive down to Harker, a private high school in San Jose where I’d been invited to speak. The computer science teacher, Robb Cutler, is a long-time TidBITS reader, and when he realized I was going to be only a few miles away, he asked me to come talk to his students about TidBITS and what life in the computer industry could be like outside of the technology pressure cooker of Silicon Valley. I managed what I hope was an amusing and helpful talk, choosing my stories to illustrate some of the points in my "Lessons from Ten Years of TidBITS," published back in TidBITS-527.



Even though (or perhaps because) I hadn’t had time to prepare, it was a great experience. The Beloit College Mindset Lists of what incoming freshmen knew suddenly gained a lot of relevance as I was relating the history of TidBITS. After all, my audience was barely out of diapers when TidBITS was starting in 1990, and some of my stories revolve around details they likely knew little of, such as Robert Morris, Jr.’s Internet worm, IBM mainframes, and an Internet without the Web.


Nonetheless, I was impressed at how bright and interested these kids were. They may not have been representative of people their age everywhere, but it was still clear that there’s no lack of the intelligence and curiosity necessary to enable us to continue inventing our future. It reinforced my belief that we must not allow the ugly political, business, and social realities of today to block the innovations – in all fields – necessary to improve life everywhere.

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