What a nightmare! Actual, true-life research was required for me to write this month’s column! But these things happen with late breaking news. Of course, late-breaking is a relative term when you write for a monthly e-zine. One of the dangers of writing a monthly column concerning a fast-developing industry like the computer industry is that the words you write can become outdated before anyone but your editor reads them. Which is, of course, just what happened to me this month. I had been proud of myself for once again sending off my column to Tim, our publisher, within a day or so of the actual deadline (rumor has it I am often the last of the My Mac staff to submit my work). And then AOL’s News Profile system quietly slipped the news into my e-mail box: Apple Computer had pushed Be Inc. out of the spotlight and bought up NeXT, the computer software company established by the Apple’s founding father, Steve Jobs. I had my suspicions as I scrolled through the first few articles that perhaps this would call for a small addendum to my column. A correction. A tweak here or there. But in the back of my brain, an idea was fighting for attention. It was the idea that I needed to do some actual research to leave my column some integrity. Yes, I would have to pursue the story, not simply let it be delivered to me with the rest of my office mail. As past readers of my column know, I make a column every month by splicing together comments and editorial that the PC press has made about Macintosh and Apple and then throwing in my own humble critiques on those articles. For deadline purposes, however, I took to the Web to rewrite my column this month. Visiting the Websites of some of the major PC publications, this is what I found….
JAZZED. THRILLED. ENERGIZED. ELECTRIFIED….
These four subtle words glowed up at me from the web pages of PC Week. From that publication came this quote concerning the return of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs to the casual-dress offices of his once and future company: ‘”It’s great. People are totally delighted,” said Ann Wrixon, the executive director of BMUG, a Berkeley, Calif., Macintosh users group. “If anyone can preach beyond the choir, it’s Steve Jobs. He created the choir.”‘
Back in still-friendly reality, PC Week pointed out that perhaps the best quality that Steve Jobs brings back to Apple is star quality. The media has fond memories of him (that being the mass media press which still fills it’s publishing and graphics departments with Macintoshes) and likes to point back to him as one of the visionaries who made personal computing possible.
PC Week also took note of comments by the 9 billion pound gorilla, Microsoft. Yes, Microsoft has been quite the cheerleader in Apple’s corner these past few months. Let’s not forget that Bill Gates was right near the top of Slate ‘s list of top charity givers in 1996. But there is a reason why 9 out of 10 computers on this planet run Microsoft’s operating system … because Bill wanted it that way. So it will be important to see how Microsoft continues to relate to Apple in the coming months. Microsoft is the company everyone loves to hate, and if Bill sees something on the horizon that threatens the glories of Windows 97, expect to see a great big gorilla roaming the streets of Silicon Valley clutching a recipe for mom’s Apple pie.
So what has Microsoft Corp. said about the NeXT buy? PC Week reads: “…the largest developer of Macintosh applications (yes, that’s Microsoft) expressed cautious support for the next-generation operating system that comes out of Apple’s labs. ‘Microsoft has always been a customer-driven company and if it makes good business sense, we will support it,’ said company spokesman Mark Murray.” O.K., let’s review 1.) how much good-business sense Bill Gates has and 2.) how much he likes helping out his competitors. [Hints: 1.) Bill Gates is the most successful businessman in American history and 2.) In order to compete against Netscape Navigator, Microsoft created an equally wonderful browser … and decided to give it away for free.]
So why would Microsoft care? Apple is still a small player, and just taking the NeXT step doesn’t mean world domination. But, in another article from PC Week, Ellen Hancock, chief technology officer at Apple, pointed out that the new Apple/NeXT software will be fit to run on Intel chips. It’s a place no smiling Mac OS logo has gone before. The focus, she said, would still be the PowerPC chips, but the compatibility will be there. What about the compatibility we’re most concerned about? i.e., backwards compatibility with the software you and I run now? Hancock declared that the new Apple system will be compatible with System 7 systems. But, “How far back we can go is something we will figure out later.” So don’t bother her with that now. She’s busy.
As for Be Inc., well, Hancock made it clear that those talks are over. Be will now fade from memory (my prediction, not her words).
And what is PC Week ‘s take on the industry reaction? “Analysts had mixed reactions to the news, although many seemed to be pleased that NeXT was chosen over Be.” Seems NeXT is more established than fifteen minutes of fame could make Be.
Let me introduce you to an operating system you may never have heard of before. The name is OpenStep, and that’s the $400 million dollar name of NeXT’s Apple-acquired product. OpenStep was chosen over the BeOS by Apple. One of the reasons, as alluded to above and reported on the web pages of Infoworld, is that OpenStep already runs on Intel hardware. Infoworld writes: “‘Apple recognizes that the PowerPC isn’t the only hardware platform out there, and (Chief Technology Officer Ellen) Hancock is really pushing the idea of expanding the platforms the Mac OS can run on,’ said one source close to Apple.” Several questions remain to be answered: How exactly will the integration of these operating systems take place? How soon will the results be available? How readily will software developers take to the new hybrid? The first two questions should be answered by Apple in January. The third will take time. One question that has been answered, however, is that Intel will be a part of the Mac OS future … but PowerPC will be the focus.
Infoworld had to include (for that journalistic balance) some negative comments about the Apple/NeXT combo. Developers like the idea but are wary. And the business world is happy with the news, but don’t expect those stockbrokers to replace their ThinkPads with PowerBooks any time soon; according to some skeptics, Apple has a lot of ground to make up if it wants to return to the land of major players.
SPEAKING OF PREDICTIONS….
I don’t report on the Macintosh publications of the world. I write for one, so I focus on the Wintel-friendly magazines and poke fun at them when they poke fun at us. You may be astonished to learn this, but My Mac is the only Macintosh publication I do subscribe to … I can wrangle up Mac news when I need to. But I do like to pick up a stray copy of MacWeek or Macworld when I have the chance, and all the goings-on with NeXT and Be have reminded me of an article I read long ago in MacWeek. My apologies to the author, but I don’t know who wrote it. Whoever it was, though, wins my computer industry prediction award of 1996. The article was a pre-Gil Amelio editorial on what Apple needed to do to get back in the game. This was in the days the Sun Microsystems was making loud noises, to the industry’s approval, about buying Apple and taking over the Mac OS. The writer of the commentary made the then-astonishing declaration that what Apple needed was not to be bought by another computer company, but to buy a smaller company of it’s own. In those days, Apple seemed to be hovering on the edge of bankruptcy, so it was a shocking idea. I day-dreamed about the possibility for a few minutes and then dismissed it. On occasion, it is nice to be wrong.
Grant Cassiday (GBCassiday@aol.com)