Macintosh users begin the new year speculating about Apple’s purchase of NeXT, and, in this issue, Adam and Geoff examine the acquisition. In other news, we report on new versions of FileMaker, LetterRip, ListSTAR, and RAM Doubler, as well as poor financial results in Apple’s most recent quarter. We also note an error in last week’s Netter’s Dinner announcement and invite you to attend Adam’s book signing at Macworld Expo.
As we start 1997, I want to express our thanks for your votes in the American Journalism Review’s Top 50 news sites poll. They arrived in sufficient numbers to place TidBITS 17th out of 50 news sites, ahead of sites such as MSNBC and HotWired. In the related story, Eric Meyer of AJR noted, "TidBITS readers ended up being the most supportive of requests from publishers to cast ballots in their publication’s favor. Nearly 1,300 TidBITS readers followed links from TidBITS to NewsLink to vote for that site." Some other extremely worthy Macintosh news sites placed well, including Ric Ford’s MacInTouch (25th), ZDNet (34th, including MacUser and MacWEEK), and Macworld (36th). Thanks again for your support – we generally avoid blowing our own horn, so it’s nice to receive this sort of recognition. [ACE]
Fourth Down, $100 Million To Go
Fourth Down, $100 Million To Go — Following a surprise $25 million profit during its last fiscal quarter, Apple said it expects a loss of between $100 to $150 million for the first fiscal quarter ending 27-Dec-96. Apple blamed the decline on slow holiday Performa sales and continued unavailability of PowerBook models. Although most Apple executives did not expect to post back-to-back profits for the two quarters, the deeper loss could force more restructuring than planned, and possible layoffs. Apple will announce the actual fiscal results on 15-Jan-97. [JLC]
More Power from the P.O.
More Power from the P.O. The world of Macintosh mailing list managers just became more compelling with the release of StarNine’s ListSTAR 1.1 and Fog City Software’s LetterRip 1.0. ListSTAR 1.1 (a free upgrade from 1.0) adds templates for easing the creation of new mailing lists and email services, provides digests with a table of contents, and is Open Transport native. ListSTAR comes in SMTP ($499) and POP ($199) versions, although the SMTP version is significantly more powerful. We run the 43,000-person TidBITS mailing list using ListSTAR/SMTP 1.1, and it has proven an excellent performer.
The $295 ($195 through 31-Jan-97, with a 30-day evaluation version) LetterRip takes a different approach. Where ListSTAR provides tremendous flexibility and suffers from related complexity, LetterRip has garnered kudos for its ease of use and configuration. LetterRip is also Open Transport native, and can be administered remotely. [ACE]
RAM Doubler 2.0.1
RAM Doubler 2.0.1 — Connectix has released an update to RAM Doubler 2.0, its popular utility program that doubles (or triples) the amount of memory your Mac thinks it has available (see TidBITS-351). The 2.0.1 update fixes a problem using Retrospect 3.0 to restore data to removable media on PCI Power Macs, and is required update for the faster networking copying feature in the soon-to-be-available Speed Doubler 2.0. [GD]
FileMaker 3.0v4 — Claris has released an update to FileMaker Pro 3.0, which fixes a number of memory leaks using Apple events and other minor problems with record selection, portals, printing, and more. The updater works on any U.S. version of FileMaker Pro 3.0; localized versions of the update are expected shortly.
Also of note, FileMaker Pro 3.0 has problems responding to Apple events when ObjectSupportLib 1.1.1 is installed. (ObjectSupportLib 1.1.1 can be installed by a number of applications, including previews of AOL 3.0). Claris has made ObjectSupportLib 1.1.6 available, which seems to work fine with FileMaker but has been reported to cause problems with other applications, including Eudora. If you have trouble using Apple events with FileMaker, you may wish to revert to version 1.1 (1.1 should have come with your System software) and place a copy of version 1.1.6 in the folder that contains FileMaker. [GD]
Netting an Error
Netting an Error — In TidBITS-359, I incorrectly noted that the Netter’s dinner at the upcoming San Francisco Macworld Expo will be on Wednesday, January 7th. The correct date is Wednesday, January 8th. My apologies; fortunately, the Web page for the event states the date correctly. Also, anyone interested in meeting Adam (and possibly myself) at the actual Expo should feel free to stop by Adam’s book signing at the Macmillan booth. The signing is also on Wednesday, January 8th, and it will take place from 10:00 AM to 11:00 AM. According the Exhibitor list that MHA Event Management has posted to the Web, the Macmillan booth is number 1846. [TJE]
The NeXT Thing for Apple
On Friday, December 20th, we were packing up for Christmas vacation when the rumors of Apple buying NeXT started in earnest. By evening, when rumors coalesced into reality with an Apple-organized press conference, we were eating dinner and leaving for the airport. Luckily, Apple failed (as usual) to invite TidBITS to participate in the conference via telephone – otherwise, we would have had to rush dinner and packing to make our flight. However, information about the deal wasn’t hard to come by, and keeping up with email over Christmas provided plenty of thoughts about the acquisition, some founded in solid fact, others rife with bilious opinion. I anticipate the big question at this week’s Macworld Expo will be "What do you think about the NeXT deal?" Here are my thoughts.
Trying to Be NeXT — Rumors have been flying around Apple’s possible acquisition of Jean-Louis Gassee’s Be Inc., for the last few months (see TidBITS-343). From my correspondence with him, Jean-Louis is a bright and interesting guy, and there’s no question Be has done great work with the Be OS, most notably (from my point of view) in its use of an object-oriented database underlying its file system. However, the very modernity of Be’s work is a blessing and a curse. As much as Be has done some things well, the Be OS isn’t a mature operating system with years of use and hundreds of thousands of users stressing it.
Those facts are generally agreed upon. What is less agreed upon is what Apple would do with a purchased operating system, and I think that question is still up in the air. People kept going on about how the Be OS had protected memory, preemptive multitasking, and all those other words that give computer science majors wet dreams. My mail was full of letters telling me to write about how Apple had to buy Be or face immediate extinction, and to most of them, I replied that I don’t understand the low-level technical issues, and therefore didn’t have an informed opinion.
I stand by my admission of ignorance. I double-majored in Hypertextual Fiction and Classics, not computer science. I suspect that 99 percent of the Macintosh community lacks the technical background to judge these OS issues on their technical merits, and I strongly suspect that most of the remaining 1 percent don’t have the sufficient inside knowledge of Apple’s OS efforts or Be’s OS work to make an informed opinion. In other words, almost everyone was clueless.
I offer this bit of history by way of saying that frankly, I’m still clueless now that Apple has bought NeXT instead of Be. Most everyone else is as well, despite what they may say. In fact, to judge from the confused and contradictory statements that have emanated from Apple, I suspect even the people who made this decision are winging it. We have to wait for Gil Amelio’s keynote at Macworld Expo for the party line, and then we must wait for real information once engineers begin working with NeXT’s technology to see how it can and should be integrated.
PR Value — That said, I’m fairly positive about Apple buying NeXT. I believe Apple’s management felt they had to do something bold and exciting, if only to stem the tide of generally unfounded negativity flowing from the press. Apple needed to shake things up, both internally and externally. Bringing new developers into the OS effort will certainly change the status quo inside Apple, and bringing the mercurial Steve Jobs back to Apple can’t help but capture the attention of users.
But what about the press? I think Apple biffed the announcement big time. What could they have been thinking to announce it on a Friday night before the week of Christmas? Why not sit on the news until Macworld Expo and announce it at the keynote? That would have brought down the house. As it was, numerous publications like TidBITS and MacWEEK were on vacation (although MacWEEK had coverage on their Web site).
What then are the real advantages of the acquisition, other than a PR boost? They fall into three categories: help with the Mac OS, a high-end Internet strategy, and an entry into certain business markets.
NeXTstep and OpenStep — I last used NeXTstep in 1989 at Cornell University, which had the first public room of NeXTcubes. Unfortunately, that was version 0.8 of NeXTstep, and although it showed much promise, its Unix roots kept breaking through to the surface. NeXT has done a lot of work since then, though, and there’s no question that NeXTstep and OpenStep (the open-standards version that runs on Intel hardware), have die-hard adherents. I recently met a couple of ex-NeXT employees, who, through several jobs, have steadfastly remained NeXT users (one even sticking with NeXTstep on an elderly 68040-based NeXT slab). It’s hard enough to remain a Macintosh user when changing jobs – I can’t imagine how hard it would be to convince a new employer that you’re going to run NeXTstep.
OpenStep (NeXT’s current application environment) is essentially middleware, in that it sits between a kernel and applications. Give OpenStep a different kernel, and it can run on different platforms, such as Windows NT. The fact that OpenStep is designed to run on top of multiple kernels may give Apple the technological flexibility it needs to modernize the Mac OS while maintaining compatibility with existing Macintosh hardware and software.
Second, developing for OpenStep is a far less time-intensive process than most any other operating system. That accounts for NeXT’s popularity in certain large business markets that rely on custom applications. The downside of the rapid development advantage is that it requires developers to use Objective C, which isn’t as widely used as C++.
Third, and finally, although NeXT’s technology may not have all the modern features of the Be OS, it has time and maturity on its side. If one of Apple’s goals in purchasing an operating system was to improve the stability and reliability of the Macintosh, it probably makes more sense to go with the tried-and-true over a hotshot newcomer. NeXT’s bugs and limitations are likely to be better known than the Be OS’s.
WebObjects and the Internet — The second place NeXT complements Apple well is in Internet technologies. Apple’s Internet technologies focus on multimedia and cutting edge stuff like MCF that may never become standard. (See TidBITS-355.) To date, many of Apple’s Internet advantages have been provided by excellent independent developers and aren’t inherent to the Macintosh.
WebObjects, in contrast, is high-end, expensive software aimed at big business. In essence, WebObjects is a CGI that enables a company to connect its database to its Web server. Nothing new there, but WebObjects is an industrial strength solution that also works with legacy data stored on elderly mainframes. It may not be sexy, but providing access to legacy data is big business, and it can’t hurt Apple to be in that market.
It’s unclear how Apple will merge WebObjects into its existing stable of Internet tools and technologies, but WebObjects has a clear market and solves obvious problems, something that’s not true of many of Apple’s Internet efforts.
Foot in the Door — The final advantage that the acquisition of NeXT brings to Apple is an introduction to some large businesses that wouldn’t previously give Apple the time of day. I’ve been thinking about Apple’s problems in the business market recently, and it seems that they stem from the fact that Apple made the Macintosh to be the premier computer for individuals. Creative types have long embraced the Macintosh, but individuality and the power to express oneself don’t often coincide with the goals of large corporations, which are interested in standard solutions that can survive an individual moving on. Over the years, the Mac has become a much better choice for businesses, but selling large accounts on the advantages of the Mac has remained an uphill battle.
Although NeXT has developed a loyal following similar to Apple’s, big business was always one of NeXT’s target markets, so NeXT may have enough of a better reputation (based on providing easily customizable solutions) to get Apple’s foot back in the door.
There’s always been part of me that says, "Forget big business, we don’t need it!" Unfortunately, as attractive as that statement is, I think it’s false. Today, Apple needs the approval of the business world, because without it, damning news stories appear in the business press, creating a feedback loop that further harms Apple’s reputation. And, gradually, if businesses avoid the Mac, it will become harder for people making individual buying decisions to stick with Apple.
Looking Ahead — So, once again, I think Apple’s acquisition of NeXT was a good move, primarily from the public perception benefits it can bring to the company. Like anyone else, I’m curious to see how Apple plans to use OpenStep in its operating system plans, and I also want to see how well NeXT’s technology and people integrate into Apple. Finally, I hope to see Steve Jobs inject back into Apple a spark of vision, insanity, or genius. If anyone can do it, Jobs can, and, the combination of Jobs’s panache with Gil Amelio’s stabilizing influence might prove formidable.
What System Comes NeXT?
Apple marked its 20th anniversary with a major change in direction: the acquisition of NeXT Software. Although Apple highlights five rather abstract points behind its acquisition of NeXT, most of the Macintosh community is concerned with two things: what a Apple-NeXT operating system will do, and when it can be delivered.
First, a caveat: don’t expect a definitive evaluation of the Apple-NeXT merger from TidBITS – or any industry publication – for some time. Hindsight may be 20-20, but for the next several months both Apple and the Macintosh community will be staring ahead into a thick blanket of fog. By acquiring NeXT, Apple has defined the arena in which it intends to play, but the first real test of the Apple-NeXT merger will probably be at the World Wide Developers Conference in May of 1997. Until then, all bets are off.
What Happened When — With the plethora of announcements, punditry, and vacation time in the last two weeks, it can be difficult to grasp how the Apple/NeXT merger came about. Here’s a chronology that should clarify matters:
Aug-96: Apple shelves Mac OS 8, codenamed Copland, in favor of biannual incremental system updates that will incorporate some Copland technology. Developers and users clamor for more details, but aside from talking up the incremental updates, Apple is tight-lipped. Be demos a version of the Be OS for Power Macintosh, and rumors of Apple-Be talks emerge.
Sep-96: Rumors of Apple-Be negotiations ignite press speculation about Apple’s OS future. NeXT is mentioned in passing.
Nov-96: Speculation about Apple and Be is fueled by mostly-unconfirmed stories in mainstream and trade press. Though Apple and Be struggle with rumor control, Apple’s silence on its operating system plans leaves more questions than answers.
Dec-96: Major Macintosh publications like MacUser and Macworld, struggling to say something about Apple’s OS plans, run extensive features on the Be OS.
19-Dec-96: Serious rumors begin to circulate that Apple and NeXT have reached an agreement.
- 20-Dec-96: Apple announces its acquisition of NeXT for $400 million; Steve Jobs is to return to Apple as Advisor to the CEO. Significantly, Gil Amelio commits to having a Mac/NeXT hybrid OS running on Apple hardware in 1997, and Metrowerks announces it will support Objective C runtimes in CodeWarrior in time for the 1997 Apple World Wide Developers Conference in May.
23-Dec-96: Apple and NeXT executives meet with the press to answer questions not covered at the initial announcement. Although some answers were helpful, some were vague or contradictory.
- 26-Dec-96: Major winter storms hit Seattle and the U.S. west coast; Geoff hunkers down with a blanket, some candles, and an old book on Objective C.
The Plan (As We Know It) — As outlined prior to the Macworld Expo, Apple’s operating system strategy can be summarized as follows:
Apple will continue to develop and enhance System 7.x on schedule for at least the next 18 months, with the first incremental update (Harmony, or Mac OS 7.6) shipping this month. Additional Mac OS 7.x releases are scheduled for July of 1997, and January of next year, although there will undoubtedly be updated components available in between. Although some developers are openly apprehensive, applications for System 7.x have at least two years with a large (probably growing) market of installed users.
- Apple will begin working on a Mac-NeXT hybrid operating system, with initial releases for developers and beta-level sites running on Apple hardware at the end of 1997. Early releases of a Mac-NeXT OS may not work or operate like today’s Macintosh, and may not include significant backward compatibility for current Macintosh applications. According to statements from Gil Amelio and Ellen Hancock prior to Macworld Expo, backward compatibility for current Macintosh applications would be present in consumer releases of a Mac-NeXT hybrid system, expected in 1998.
These plans don’t mean you should start surfing the Web for screenshots of the NeXT OS, thinking you’re looking deep into the eyes of a future Mac. No matter what else, Apple must produce a Macintosh. Apple’s now-legendary ease-of-use and elegant design must be apparent in any future operating system if Apple hopes to compete with Windows NT and other mainstream systems. That doesn’t mean abandoning good ideas from NeXT, but rather making sure the polish and style of the Macintosh are unequivocally present.
The NeXT Hurdles — Why are the specifics of a Mac-NeXT operating system so vague? Simple: Apple and NeXT haven’t had time to evaluate the complex technical issues at the heart of such a project.
First, there’s the question of a kernel. A kernel is a relatively small bit of software that coordinates nearly all services for an operating system, including memory allocation, process management, data access, and interaction with hardware. OpenStep, conversely, is a comprehensive software layer designed to run on top of multiple kernels: it presently runs on the Mach kernel (a Unix variant) and Windows NT, and can deploy to other flavors of Unix.
One of Apple’s first tasks in designing a Mac-NeXT operating system will be to decide what kernel to use as a building block on Macintosh hardware. Numerous advocates would love to see Unix at the heart of the Macintosh, and note that Apple has been sponsoring development of a version of Linux for Power Macintosh based on the Mach kernel. Since OpenStep is already available for Unix, many people believe Mach is an obvious, best path for Apple.
So far as Macintosh hardware is concerned, my personal bet would be on NuKernel, Apple’s own microkernel developed for Copland. Although NuKernel (obviously) never shipped, Apple has been working on it for some time, and it was designed with Apple’s existing hardware (PowerBooks and various AV capabilities) and software (QuickTime, OpenDoc) in mind. However, OpenStep could provide the possibility of developing a future Mac OS designed for non-Macintosh hardware, and applications written for the Macintosh could conceivably run under other operating systems.
Another fundamental question for Apple regards display technology. NeXTstep relies on Display PostScript to generate its screen display. This has always been one of the "gee-whiz" features of NeXT, and graphics professionals have long wished for Display PostScript on the Macintosh. However, Apple’s acquisition of NeXT doesn’t mean Display PostScript is necessarily going to become part of the Mac OS. First, Adobe owns Display PostScript, and currently collects royalties for every copy of Display PostScript sold, just as it collects royalties for every PostScript printer sold. Apple might understandably be wary of entering into a licensing agreement for Display PostScript, which would not only put the Mac OS at the mercy of Adobe technology, but would increase the already-high cost of the Mac OS. Second, Apple already owns a graphics and typography engine that is (in many ways) technically superior to Display PostScript: QuickDraw GX. However, developer support for QuickDraw GX has been lackluster (for a variety of reasons). So far, Apple hasn’t said anything about the fate of Display PostScript or QuickDraw GX in future operating systems.
Compatibility — An issue of primary concern is backward compatibility with current applications. Macintosh users will (rightfully) expect the vast majority of current and future Macintosh applications to run on a future Mac-NeXT operating system. Apple would do well to remember that a significant portion of its customer loyalty stems from strong backward compatibility. A Mac Plus can still run System 7.5.5, and many users (myself included) run software written in 1988 or earlier. Although Apple may attempt to bridge rank-and-file customers to a new operating over a two or three year period, at a minimum that new operating system will have to be reasonably compatible with System 7.x applications.
A key to backward compatibility might be the work Apple has already invested in MAE, a Macintosh application layer that essentially lets Mac OS applications run on a variety of Unix workstations. MAE is not faultless, but it does provide a surprising number of Macintosh services on non-Apple hardware. Technical knowledge from Apple’s MAE effort may lead to strong backward compatibility for System 7.x applications under a future Mac-NeXT operating system, even on non-Macintosh hardware and/or non-Apple kernels.
Vendors and Technology Support — It seems likely many major Apple technologies will be available for a future Mac-NeXT system. Some of these – like QuickTime – represent some of Apple’s most-coveted properties, and Apple has a tremendous investment in making sure first-rate implementations run on Apple’s operating systems. Similarly, Apple is likely to maintain its commitment to OpenDoc, which (in theory) could benefit significantly from a Mac-NeXT system. Less clear are the futures of technologies like Speech Recognition, QuickDraw 3D, and (particularly) QuickDraw GX. Other core Apple technologies – AppleTalk, Apple events – will be essential to making the new system walk and talk like a Macintosh.
However, less certain is how well third-party developers will take to a new operating system. Several development tool companies (including Metrowerks, Symantec, Altura, and Tenon Intersystems) have already announced intentions to support a Mac-NeXT system; no doubt numerous additional commitments will be forthcoming from vendors at Macworld Expo. However, announcing plans to support a forthcoming system is one thing: delivering products is another. Apple and the Macintosh community probably won’t have a good idea how solid support for a Mac-NeXT operating system is until after the World Wide Developers Conference in May.
What to Expect at Macworld Expo — Let’s face it: Apple and NeXT haven’t had time to make solid decisions about many of the issues surrounding a Mac-NeXT system. As a result, you can expect Apple to speak of schedules in vague terms ("first half of 1998"), and to make general statements about commitments to backward compatibility, core technologies, and key Apple markets. Apple’s objectives for this week’s Macworld Expo are simple: demonstrate momentum toward a modern operating system; ensure that attendees feel good about the NeXT acquisition; and rally third-party vendor and developer support.
What About Be? If you think Jean-Louis Gassee and Be will cool their heels in the wake of the Apple-NeXT merger, think again: Be plans to move forward aggressively with the Be OS. Be OS DR 8 for Power Macintosh is now available for developers via the CodeWarrior for Be OS package, the January issue of MacTech magazine, and with Power Computing systems beginning this quarter. Furthermore, Be is widely expected to demonstrate some Macintosh applications running under a Mac OS emulator from fredlabs for Be OS on Power Computing machines.
Many technology writers have expressed disappointment that Apple didn’t purchase Be OS as a foundation for future Macintosh systems. I think Be is in an enviable position and may have the better end of the deal: they remain a nimble, forward-thinking company with a genuinely exciting product and strong momentum. I sincerely hope that Be and Apple will continue to work together toward the success of both companies.