Peering Between the Pixels

Well, another expo has come and gone, leaving nothing but postmortems in its wake. A lot of the predicted announcements failed to materialize, an Internet strategy did (though not in any of the expected forms), and a preview of OS X appeared unexpectedly. Once again, a lot of observers have been left guessing: why did they get so many things wrong in the first place, and what does all that was announced mean? What follows is my take on things; since I carefully avoided making any predictions, I could probably claim that my analysis of the Expo has a higher degree of credibility than many, but that doesn’t mean what I’m saying below isn’t just rampant speculation.

What Steve didn’t say may be more important than what he actually said:

The early parts of the keynote were nothing surprising. Jobs plugged the usual Apple technologies and repeated the usual statistics regarding new buyers and Internet usage of iMac purchasers. The primary new wrinkles in the statistics were the addition of figures on the prevalence of QuickTime usage and the frequency with which new buyers of iMacs are making home movies. These two statistics, of course, are related; by making QuickTime the standard output format for iMovie, Apple is hoping to expand the use of QuickTime. In essence, iMovie is another weapon in the war against RealNetworks and Microsoft. Apple needs to do more to get the word out to people who weren’t at the Expo, though shortly after it ended, a NY Times article actually claimed that QuickTime being in second place in these stats was irrelevant, since it couldn’t handle streaming!

Noticeably absent however, were statistics on the use of AirPort. This might imply that the statistics weren’t that favorable. It’s partly likely to be due to the fact that AirPort took longer than the iMac DVs to actually arrive on the market. An interpretation I feel is worth considering, though, is that Steve was responding to several negative reviews of AirPort, in which columnists describe the difficulty they had in getting and maintaining stable Internet connections. Why praise an Apple technology until he was certain they got it right? In contrast, the reviews of iMovie have been uniformly positive. So, although the two products were introduced at the same time, the video statistics were the only ones that made the cut. Expect to see wireless networking statistics as soon as a software update brings AirPort up to the same level as iMovie.

Also absent was the introduction of any of the predicted hardware. The simple explanation for this would be that it just wasn’t ready, but that didn’t stop Jobs from introducing the G4s last year, or OS X at this Expo. My guess is that with all the hardware product lines in place, Steve decided it was time to focus on software. Apple has many people convinced that they make exciting and innovative hardware now, but on the software side they’ve been focusing on things peripheral to the operating system, such as QuickTime and Sherlock. Ever since Apple claimed that they conceded in the operating system wars, they’ve been reluctant to argue against the frequently stated (at least in many computer magazines) opinion that the Mac OS is only marginally superior to Windows. It’s inevitable that this truce would come to an end; there’s only so many ways to say you’ve got a superior product without pointing out the flaws in your competitor’s. Apple’s Internet and OS announcement, however, indicate that they may be ready to rejoin this battle.

Software everywhere

The vast majority of the keynote was dedicated to software announcements: an Internet strategy and OS X. I’ll get to the Internet strategy first. Overall, it disappointed a lot of people who were expecting more than a partnership and a portal. The partnership with Earthlink isn’t such a bad idea, though. As pointed out at The Register, worrying about network hardware is something Apple doesn’t need to be distracted by. In addition, there is increasing pressure for Internet access to be provided for free. If that practice becomes widespread, at least Apple won’t be stuck with the bill now.

The portal portion was a disappointment for some because it didn’t break any new ground. Free cards, web space, email, and storage space have all been available for a while now. Apple can claim they do it better all they want, but we all know how far having superior products can get you. The obvious advantage I saw for Apple is that it would drive sales of OS 9, since the features supposedly require this version to work. Given time to look things over, though, I’m impressed with how fully it integrates many of Apple’s technologies and thus makes each more likely to increase the use of the others. The reliance of Kid Safe on the multiple user capabilities of OS 9 increases the chance that parents will use that. The cards and Web page can rely on images stored in the iDisk, and people can also place movies created on their iMacs there. As they encourage their friends and family to view them, they encourage more people to download and install QuickTime. Every aspect of iTools seems to be designed to push the acceptance of some other Apple technology.

One interesting subtext to the portal strategy is that Apple didn’t have to do much work to implement Kid Safe; rather, they simply bought the company that developed it. Part of the good financial news at Apple is that their revenue has led them to accumulate large reserves of cash. My initial reaction to this was, “Great, more R and D,” but Apple has found several examples of other ways to use the cash wisely. Apple bought the technology of Kid Safe, licensed the technology for file sharing via TCP/IP, pumped money into Samsung to make sure they had enough screens for the iBooks, and invested enough in Akamai to make a small fortune. These are the added bonuses that being a prosperous company allows.

Overall, the synergy between the OS and Apple’s Internet strategy may help to convince more people that you can do more things easily and simply if you own the latest version of the Mac OS. If that isn’t enough to convince you to buy it, however, there’s always OS X, which took a major step away from its prior vaporware status. Apple did everything it could to make OS X everything that Windows is not. In contrast to the boxy look of Windows, Apple has made OS X smooth, fluid, and vibrant. Instead of producing three operating systems, Apple’s putting all their effort into making one. Welcome back to the OS wars.

But is it any good?

A lot of the discussions about the new interface have focused simply on its visuals. These don’t concern me; as the people who brought us Kaleidoscope have shown us that things such as menus, window bars, and close boxes are nothing more than small images. Once you find out where these images reside, they can be replaced. The really interesting aspects of the interface, such as the shadows and translucence, seemed to be functions of Quartz .

Quartz is also probably the reason Apple has moved to a single OS strategy. Having markets for both Quickdraw and Quartz would distract the attention of both hardware and software developers. As it is, some developers claim that the Mac market is too small to be worth their attention; nowhere is that more obvious than with games and graphics accelerators. If these markets were split between two operating systems, the situation would be even worse. By focusing all efforts on a single operating system, Apple makes it more likely that Mac users will have all the latest toys.

There were some aspects of the OS X that did disturb me, though. The Apple menu has long been a convenient and obvious place to put frequently needed items. The control strip performs a similar function for systems settings. Both of these appear to be absent in the new OS. Worse still, the desktop no longer performs its expected functions. As Steve himself pointed out while demonstrating iDisk, Mac users expect available volumes to appear on the desktop; working with various forms of Unix has strongly reinforced the value of the desktop for me. Although the mechanism Unix uses for handling volumes would make the desktop difficult to implement, I can’t believe that the programmers at Apple couldn’t solve this problem. The lack of a desktop will force Mac users to deal with things they have ridiculed Windows users for. Finding out whether a Zip disk mounted properly will require a trip to the Browser. If you put aliases of your volumes on the desktop, they’ll be there even if the volume isn’t available. These are all annoyances users of other operating systems face; they shouldn’t be things Mac users struggle with.

In place of all this and the Finder, we will be given the browser and the dock. The browser appears to be a partly acceptable solution, although I would need to try it out to know for sure (anybody want to send me a copy of DR-4?). The dock, however, worries me, as it tries to be too many things. Although visually stunning, the appearance actually interferes with function. Applications, minimized windows, files, and websites all become indistinguishable when collapsed in to the dock. In the end, one item just isn’t enough to handle all the features that Apple’s not retaining from its current OS offering.

I can’t imagine I’m alone in having these complaints. What I expect to see this time next year is a situation similar to that around the time when System 7.5 arrived. At that time, no system was complete without the addition of third-party software utilities most people buying a Mac also invested in software such as Now Utilities, and a number of shareware solutions. Over time, Apple worked a lot of the equivalent functionality with their operating systems. This process seems likely to be repeated. I feel certain that software will be released which makes OS X behave more like OS 9 (I’m already planning an AppleScript that could replicate the Desktop’s behavior), and other software will extend the user experience using technology that is only available with OS X. After a few years, Apple will sort through what works and what doesn’t, and incorporate those things which work. They even have enough money to buy any software they like the look of.

I shouldn’t give the impression that there is nothing I like about OS X; Apple seems to have harnessed the capabilities of Unix to do something other than serve Web pages. They also seem to have recognized that abilities such as pre-emptive multitasking and multi-threading require compensations in the user interface. Simple matters such as associating dialogues and warnings with the windows and programs that have spawned them is an obvious feature that somehow escaped the authors of Windows and many other Unix interfaces. The animated interface looks likely to make working with a computer a bit more exciting, and some of the Unix features, like multitasking and protected memory, seem to be well implemented.

Overall, I think the trend towards pushing the advantages of the Mac OS, both in its present and future incarnations, is the most significant trend that appeared at MacWorld. I also think it’s one of the things that helped convinced Steve to drop his interim CEO status; he’s not satisfied with having staved off extinction‹he wants to win. He’s probably beginning to wonder how glowing the articles on his leadership of Apple would be if he actually got it to prosper. I think Apple’s ability to use its large cash reserves and increasing stock value to cut deals and obtain technology it wants will be critical to that prosperity; it’s allowing them to add features with minimal effort, and many allow some surprises in the future. As far OS X, though, the jury will be out until the day it is released. It’s a work in progress that has already changed somewhat after outcries of the past, and I expect it to change even more in the next couple of months as the work that’s been going on on its plumbing moves more towards work on its interface.

Jay Timmer

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