The Personal Computing Paradigm
Musical Operating Systems
"Not everyone we're talking to is talking to you." That's what Ellen Hancock, Apple's Chief Technical Officer, told the press when it jumped to the conclusion that Apple was going to buy Be Inc. of Menlo Park, California. No one, it seems, believed her. It's too bad they didn't, because most major Mac magazines ran a cover story telling about Be OS being the future of the Mac. Instead, as probably every Mac user knows by now, Apple bought NeXT Inc., the company Steve Jobs founded when John Sculley forced him out of Apple. In his new position, Jobs will report directly to CEO Gil Amelio. He's not coming back empty-handed. Since 1988, NeXT has been developing their own operating system called NeXTstep. You might wonder, "Why would Apple bring back Jobs to get its hands on an operating system from the '80s?" One answer is that NeXT was revolutionary in the '80s and widely thought of as being ahead of it's time.
But what about Be? It's revolutionary today and already (in pre-release form) runs on the PowerPC microprocessor in PowerMacs. What's more, the aquisition price would probably have been cheaper than that of NeXT. There are several schools of thought on this issue. I'll present some facts and let you draw your own conclusions.
By now, you've probably heard that Be Inc. was founded by former Apple executive Jean-Louis Gassée and developed the operating system software called Be OS. What you might not know is that Be OS is currently installed on PowerMacs — through a developer release. I received DR 8.2 of Be OS for Power Mac earlier this month with my subscription copy of MacTech. The software very cleverly — and quickly — installed itself on a partition of my main hard drive, and despite cautions about data-loss, proceeded without a hitch. Double-clicking the Be OS Launcher quit all open, Mac applications, purged the RAM of the computer, and launched Be OS. The startup process took only a few seconds before I was greeted by the Be desktop, complete with [the dock] along the left side of the screen.
The Be OS is a truly modern operating system, mainly because of its recent entry into the field. It supports protected memory, which prevents a crash in one application from bringing down the entire operating system; pre-emptive multitasking, which allows the user interface to respond even while processor-intensive tasks are running; symmetric multi-processing, which lets all software take advantage of having more than one processor; and a fully object-oriented programming model, which makes it simpler for programmers to write code and integrate it with the operating system.
Be OS' interface is different from the Mac, but intuitive enough that anyone familiar with a GUI could learn it in short order. The dock on the left edge of the screen is a place to store documents, applications, and folders for quick access — not unlike the Apple Menu and Launcher. At the top left of the dock is the Be menu, which can switch between open applications. To the right of the Be menu is an iconic menu belonging to the active application. Some application windows have an additional menu bar (à la Windows). I find those somewhat annoying because there isn't seem an easy way to know which commands are located in the dock menu, and which are in the window's menu bar.
A nice feature of the Be OS is its Workspaces. You can have more than 30 different Workspaces, arrangements of windows which reduce screen clutter. For instance, I could open NetPositive, the Be web browser, in a workspace and use it to read several different chapters of the online user manuals (each in its own window). Then I could open up the CodeWarrior IDE to write a program, and open the CD player to listen to some music. All of this could be done in oneworkspace (as on the Mac), but it would lead to overlapping windows and "clutter."
In Be OS, individual processes can be opened as separate workspaces. The currently active workspaces are displayed in a window. Switching between workspaces is easily done with a mouse click. You can even move windows within a workspace from the Workspaces application.
Finally, the Be OS is very responsive. I was easily able to duplicate the famous demo of Be OS's multitasking on my PowerMac with 4 QuickTime moves playing simultaneously.
However, there are two things I don't like about the Be OS — first, all of its user interface elements are displayed in low contrast (probably worse than Windows in this regard) and a few are strange. Second, it isn't a complete product. Printing, color management, and other basic features are unfinished. This last problem is most likely the reason that Apple decided not to use Be OS as the foundation for its next-generation operating system (pun intended).
Let's start by clarifying some terms. Since NeXT is relatively new to the general public, there is some confusion about terminology (I may not be clear about everything myself). The company Steve Jobs founded upon being forced out of Apple was called NeXT. Currently, NeXT's main product is NeXTsetp, the operating system that ran on the (now discontinued) NeXT hardware line. Apple plans to integrate NeXTstep into the development of a new Mac OS.
OpenStep is a platform-independent Application Programming Interface (API) developed by NeXT and used in NeXTstep. OpenStep is similar to Mac Toolbox. It's what programmers use when they write software to run under NeXTstep. OpenStep sits above the microkernal, the part of the operating system that interfaces with the hardware (in NeXTstep, the microkernal is called Mach). Programs written for OpenStep are platform independent — they can be run on any computer with OpenStep, no matter what its processor type or underlying kernel architecture.
Unlike the Mac OS and Windows, NeXTstep is based on UNIX, the popular (or unpopular, depending on who you consult) operating system used on "big computers." Thus, NeXTstep is inherently powerful in terms of multitasking, memory protection, and network security. No one, with the possible exception of NeXT, has yet managed to design an operating system based on UNIX that is user-friendly, in other words, a system that hides its "UNIXness." But if anyone can "clean up" the NeXTstep interface, make it easier to use and more accessible to new users, it's Apple. Let's hope they don't forget how important their "polished" human interfaces are.
It's evident, by looking at NeXTstep, that Steve Jobs borrowed a lot of ideas from the Macintosh. At the same time, however, he made quite a few interface refinements. The most striking change is the gray and black interface. It looks intimidating, although, in reality, it is not difficult to use. The next noticeable difference is the lack of a menu bar. Instead, a menu pops up from the upper left corner of the screen revealing submenus with names similar to traditional Mac menus. Although a little more mousing is required to get to your menu choice, NeXTstep menus are "sticky" (as Windows menus are) to make submenu navigation easier.
NeXTstep windows are quite different from their Mac counterparts. For starters, the "close window" box is on the right side of the title bar and looks like an "X" (as in Windows 95). Also, the vertical scroll bar is on the left side of the window, presumably because the mouse is more frequently used on the left side of the screen. As with Windows 95 and Be OS, scroll bars are proportional. In addition, there is a dot in the middle of the scroll thumb. If you click in the scroll bar, the center of the scroll thumb (where the dot is) will move to where you clicked, scrolling the window contents appropriately. Finally, scroll arrows are positioned next to each other. While this looks strange at first, it is actually a great timesaver, especially with large windows.
So which is better: NeXTstep or Be OS? I'll let you be the judge of that. They both have strengths and weaknesses, and neither one has been widely used as yet. I don't think it was a question of which operating system was better overall, but rather, which was better for the Apple of late 1996. NeXTstep is here now, running on machines in finished form, and has been for years. In several contexts, NeXTstep is less modern than Be OS, which may have been, in the long run, the better choice. However, if Apple had chosen to integrate its technologies into Be OS, finish the unfinished portions of Be OS and create a compatibility layer, there might not have been a "long run." All I can say is that I hope Apple's decision to go with NeXT was based on the technical merits of the operating system or on a shorter timeline for getting a finished product to market, rather than Steve Job's remarkable salesmanship.
Apple claims it will ship a release of its next-generation OS to the public by January 1998. That's a very tall order and I have difficulty actually believing it. Months before then, a retail version of Be OS that will run on certain PowerMacs and a Mac emulator (from FredLabs) that will run popular productivity software within a Be workspace will be available. Some might view this as competition which will negatively impact Apple's bottom line. I think that, in this case, the more operating systems and software packages that run on Mac (and clone) hardware, the better. It will put pressure on Apple to make its delivery promises. If Apple misses its deadlines, there will be a high-performance alternative that runs on Power Mac (and PPCP) hardware.
Musical Operating Systems
Rhapsody, Apple's next-generation operating system, was announced at the MacWorld Expo in San Francisco this month. Although a bit vague, the announcement provided some important information about how Apple plans to integrate Mac OS and NeXT technologies. According to Apple, a "preview" (without System 7 application compatibility) release of Rhapsody will be available to end users in about a year. Hopefully more details will be available by next month, when I'll focus on Apple's Rhapsody plan, what it means to Mac users, and what it means to our way of computing.
Also in This Series
- How Cool Is Your Mac? · May 2012
- Mac OS X’s Increasing Stability · August 2006
- Coping With Mac OS X’s Font Rendering · January 2006
- E-Mail Archiving with Eudora and Mail.app · January 2003
- Grab Bag · October 2002
- Mac OS X 10.2—First Impressions · September 2002
- Mac OS X 10.1—First Impressions · October 2001
- Mac OS X Tips · June 2001
- Mac OS X—Finally · May 2001
- Complete Archive