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ATPM 2.10
October 1996




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The Personal Computing Paradigm

by Michael Tsai,

Not Meant To Be

The last few months have been filled with speculation about what the future of the MacOS is — or should be. I've been fascinated by BeOS ever since I saw it at MacWorld Expo in August. Judging from the numerous newsgroup postings and editorials written on the subject, I am not the only one impressed by it. But what really caught people's interest was not the BeBox. As amazing as it was, people thought that to run BeOS you'd have to go out and buy that stylish blue tower. No, what really wowed Mac users was the demonstration of BeOS running on a Mac. This is probably what started people saying that BeOS might be a more realistic MacOS 8 than Copland. It was written from the ground up for speed, and it was here now — not sometime in late '98. Well, the rumor mill started grinding, and soon articles appeared titled "Apple Talks With Be About Aquisition." People seemed to believe that if Apple bought BeOS and relabled it as MacOS 8, it would be a panacea for all of Apple's operating system woes.

I wouldn't be writing this column if I was jumping on the bandwagon saying that BeOS should be MacOS 8. In fact, after I overcame my initial excitement over the idea, I was horrified at what support for this proposition means. First off, it means that people think Copland will either never see the light of day, or that it will not have been worth the wait once it is finally released. It also means that people are willing to throw away just about everything that makes the Mac the Mac — because the amount of Mac software that will run under BeOS is the same as the amount of Mac software that will run under Windows NT: none.

I hate to burst everyone's speculative bubble, but BeOS is just not ready to slide into the lives of millions of Mac users. I don't think people really understand what they'd be giving up by switching to Be. I recommend that people wanting to run certain applications in a stable, pre-emptive multitasking environment put a copy of BeOS on their PowerMacs when it is released in early 1997. That's what I'm planning to do. But beyond that, I suggest that you wait for Copland — the real MacOS 8. I've examined several of the ways people have suggested for Apple to replace Copland with BeOS. Before you tell me that I'm crazy not to support them, take a look at several of the ideas.

1. Rewrite BeOS so that it will start up existing Macs. Bundle it with new Macs instead of the normal system software.

Under this option, all Mac applications, control panels and extensions become incompatible. The Mac instantly becomes a modern platform with no software. Techy people wait for software to arrive, or write their own. Everyone else switches to Windows. Very few new users choose the Mac because BeOS is not as easy to use as the Mac was, and because it has so little software. Apple loses respect because the company known for innovation has farmed out both its software and hardware businesses to third parties.

2. Apple abandons the MacOS. It focuses on building PowerPC Platform machines that run BeOS (as well as Windows NT).


3. Apple takes either of the above strategies and attempts to make BeOS compatible with Mac software. It writes a Macintosh emulator so that Mac apps can run within BeOS, much as DOS apps run in Windows 95.

Everyone starts out thinking that this will take less time than completing Copland (which already has a several year programming head start). However, compatibility with old apps is what delayed Copland, and it's what delays the Mac emulator for BeOS until 1999. By then, fewer 1996 Mac apps are compatible with the emulator than would have been compatible with Copland. A crash in oneMac app brings down the entire emulator (just as it brings the entire machine down today). No one seems to care though, because by the time the emulator is done, no one wants to run old Mac apps anymore. No one used BeOS because it didn't have much software and didn't have Apple's legendary ease-of-use. And most of the 1996 Mac apps now have Windows NT versions anyway.

4. Apple announces that just as Apple II users switched to the Mac because it was clearly the way of the future, Mac users must now switch to BeOS because it is the way of the future.

Rather than trying to make applications run under BeOS, Apple focuses on revamping technologies such as Quicktime, QuickDraw 3D, and OpenDoc to run under BeOS. This makes sense because these top caliber "enabler" and cross-platform technologies have come much closer to being adopted as standards than did MacOS. Apple tweaks BeOS so that it has more of a Mac's "look and feel." The result? A rock-solid system that isn't very Mac-like. The user interface is inferior to System 7, because BeOS was never designed to behave like a Mac. Core technologies work fine, but most of them — especially OpenDoc — aren't as seamlessly integrated into this hybrid OS as they would have been under Copland. BeOS has become a slightly more elegant version of Windows NT — without the software from the Windows world or the marketing savvy from Microsoft.

What's wrong with these strategies? All attempts to retain Mac's core technologies yield an operating system that gets the job done, but lacks the Mac's compelling sense of integration and ease of use.

Apple's CTO Ellen Hancock recently made a rather strange annoucement. She said that if Apple had to choose between compatibility with old applications and making a powerful operating system, they would abandon old applications. This caused quite a stir. People began thinking that Apple was dumping compatibility and abandoning the installed software base. Personally, I see no cause for concern. Copland is being designed from the ground up with compatibility at its center. That is what has delayed it for so long. Dumping compatibility at this point would be akin to starting over. Surely Mr. Amelio knows that this isn't a wise choice.

My analysis of Ms. Hancock's statement is this: a Copland that is incompatible with existing applications is preferable to BeOS, provided that delivery is not delayed much further. One MacOS strength that is often overlooked is software integration. Apple has fully committed itself to OpenDoc, Copland will have OpenDoc built in and Gershwin promises to be (if we ever see it) an operating system entirely based on it. By contrast, BeOS was never designed for OpenDoc. While BeOS might eventually support it, OpenDoc will never be as integrated as we anticipate it will be in Copland.

Another important consideration is that soon, both BeOS and MacOS will run on Power PC Platform machines. Running applications under different operating systems might make more sense than investing in the design of a Mac emulator for BeOS. PowerComputing has already announced that it will offer BeOS with some of its upcoming Mac-compatibles. A similar strategy would be a good option when Apple releases its PPCP machines.

All this talk about continuing with Copland is not to say that Apple should ignore Be. Just as with Windows, Apple needs to make sure that technologies like the QuickTime Media Layer are ubiquitous across all platforms. In fact, I think QTML should be have priority over Cyberdog in Apple's Internet strategy. QTML, combined with its interactive HyperCard technologies, can potentially revolutionize the Internet as much as Sun's much-hyped Java. Even if the MacOS isn't on every desktop, QTML can be - provided that it's finished soon and marketed well.

I do not mean to imply that "Apple is doomed," or that Copland will never arrive. You need only to pick up a copy of a national newspaper to read about that. Instead, my objective is to persuade people away from supporting a switch to BeOS, which seems on the surface to be an easy solution. It's true that the release date for MacOS 8 is as yet unknown, but I feel it's worth the wait. No matter how attractive BeOS may look at this point in time, it is no substitute for the Macintosh experience. Copland is designed from the ground up to ensure compatibility with existing applications, to provide seemless integration of current and future Apple technologies, and to showcase twelve years of human interface refinement. To settle for anything less would be uncivilized.

"The Personal Computing Paradigm" is ©1996 by Michael Tsai, [apple graphic]

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