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ATPM 9.12
December 2003





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by Paul Fatula,

O’Reilly Mac OS X Conference 2003

I face an interesting challenge, writing an article about the O’Reilly Mac OS X Conference. The article won’t be published until a bit more than a month after the conference took place. Most anyone interested in what happened at the conference would have read about it in real-time, more or less, back in late October. MacSlash, for example, posted detailed articles about many of the conference sessions. The conference itself and the winners of ORA’s Mac OS X Innovators contest were well-publicized on most major Mac news sites. A month later, what’s left to say?


The conference was actually a three-day gig, Tuesday through Thursday. The odd timing is because the day before the conference offered some optional tutorials, available at extra cost. My plane landed on Sunday. My press pass was good for the tutorials as well as the conference proper, and as they received relatively less mention in the press than the rest of the conference, I’m going to get a little specific.

My morning tutorial was Introduction to AppleScript, and it really was an introduction. I suppose in spite of the title of the course I had expected something a bit more towards the intermediate realm of the spectrum; after all, this was an O’Reilly tech conference, geared towards Mac professionals. The course was taught by Sal Soghoian, AppleScript Product Manager, and not only was he (obviously) knowledgeable, he was also a terrific speaker. But the tutorial was made not only for people new to AppleScript, but also for people who were new to programming. Over the course of the conference, this tutorial would come to seem increasingly strange and out-of-place: just about every session I attended was aimed at significantly more advanced computer users.

For example, the tutorial on Custom Mac OS X Setup via AppleScript Studio and Command Line Tools, which followed the lunch break (see below). I suppose I figured this tutorial would take off from where the first one left off, but it turned out to be far more advanced than that, as though the middle ground had quietly been forgotten. Will Jorgensen moved quickly through Interface Builder (which reminded me a lot of FaceSpan, if any of y’all remember that) and then showed off the (AppleScript) code, a chunk at a time, for his MHPSetup program. The code is nine pages long, quite a jump from Sal explaining what an if-then statement is and how easy it is to use, just like English. That’s not a complaint; far from it, this session was much more along the lines of the rigor I was expecting to find at the conference, and it’s largely what I got.

This needs to be said at some point, and I may as well put it here, because it’s on the first day that I made note of it: the professionalism with which this conference was put on was simply astounding. I was in the middle of the second tutorial when it struck me that these presentations were being given with computers running PowerPoint or Keynote, various other applications, the whole thing being projected onto a big screen, speakers with wireless mics…and it all worked—no glitches. No sitting around for half an hour while some hotel lackey tried to figure out how to change a bulb in the projector, no “Well, I guess I’ll just try to speak loudly” from presenters whose microphones didn’t work. It should be unremarkable, really, that everything went as smoothly as it did; this paragraph should not need to exist. But such professional training as I have had has almost always fallen victim to a variety of technical glitches. It deserves to be said that O’Reilly’s staff does it right.


The conference took place at the Westin Santa Clara, the most expensive place I have ever stayed at by a factor of two. Take a look:


I’d love to tell you how I got there; it’s a great story, but it’s much too far off-topic. About the location, though, I will say this much: a good proportion of the conference attendees came from out of town; those who came into town by air and then to the hotel by shuttle, taxi, or public transit didn’t have cars. The Westin Santa Clara, luxurious as it is, is more or less in the middle of nowhere. I walked around a lot. I like walking, and other than a few restaurants (marked on a crude photocopied map provided by the hotel receptionist) there is just about nothing to do within walking distance of the hotel. When I finally found a café, the sign said it closed at seven—for shame! A better location would have offered places to go at night, things to do other than sit around the hotel lounge or spend 45 minutes on public transportation.

The entire conference area was equipped with wireless networking, and a solid majority of the conference attendees had laptops, mostly PowerBook G4s, running Mac OS X 10.3. I did spy one lone Pismo, and unsurprisingly I was the only one with an AlphaSmart Dana, having decided I preferred its two-pounds and 20-plus-hour battery life to my eight-pound two-hour Wall Street, which at any rate will live out the remainder of its quiet days on good ol’ OS 9. Conference session floors were strewn with power strips, by the way, so those whose batteries ran low could plug in and recharge.

For those without computers in tow, the Apple Developer Connection sponsored the Rendezvous Lounge, where iBooks, PowerBooks, iMacs, and G5 towers all awaited use. There were enough computers in the room that I was always able to find a free machine.

Breakfast and lunch were provided, the former featuring some pretty amazing cream cheese. As for the lunches, two out of four were simply a salad bar. I know this was California, but heartier fare would have been much appreciated by myself and nearly everyone I ate with who voiced an opinion.


The keynotes, two per day for three days, were (especially the first two days and double-especially Andy Ihnatko on Wednesday) more entertainment than content: they were warm-up sessions to get you going for the day ahead.


Tim O’Reilly’s keynote opened the conference Tuesday morning with O’Reilly Radar, talking about what he saw coming next and generally about how great technology is. The point of it was, I suppose, to get us thinking, and it did. But here’s the thing: the very idea of a computing technology conference is in a sense paradoxical. Here we all are, most of us having travelled hundreds or even thousands of miles, having paid somewhere in the neighborhood of $1,500 for hotel, airfare, and conference pass…can anybody think of a piece of technology that would allow us all to save a lot of money and get this content while sitting in our respective offices where we are much more accessible to our respective employers? Sure, there’s QuickTime streaming, Internet Web sites, Web boards, even good old-fashioned books and magazines: all free or, at any rate, considerably less expensive than a conference pass, and all chock-full of high-end content.

I knew what I was doing there; I was covering the conference. But I began to wonder what everybody else was doing there. As David Pogue and Adam Engst gave their respective keynotes on what’s new in Panther, conference attendees nodded knowledgeably, having already read about the blue Expose blob and the dreaded FireWire Drive problem on their favorite Macintosh Web sites. If most of the content, of not just the keynotes but even the sessions themselves, was easily found on the Internet, why were all these people here?

Andy Ihnatko’s Wednesday keynote, “The Big Rethink,” pointed me to part of the answer to this question. His speech was, I’ll not mince words, flippin’ hilarious. It was nothing short of a stand-up routine aimed at Mac geeks. I won’t bother telling you what it was actually about because it would seem boring and mundane, but I’m really not exaggerating when I say everyone in the audience had a blast. All the over-the-top geekdom, which 10 or 15 years ago was getting high-school nerds shoved into lockers, was suddenly transformed into the epitome of coolness. Andy carried himself like a rock star, as though unaware that just about any other audience would be laughing at him instead of with him.

So is that it? Is that the answer? At the end of the day were people at the O’Reilly Mac OS X Conference to have fun, to feel good about themselves and their chosen profession? No, at least, I don’t think so. I don’t think that’s all it is. But I have to assume that most of the conference attendees know that they could get much of the pure content of the conference, alone and unadorned, from their computers and books at home or at work. So fun is definitely part of it: I don’t think people would go back if they didn’t on some level have fun, and I think anyone who thinks he goes to a conference purely and solely for the nitty-gritty content is guilty of a bit of self-deception in light of the Internet age.


The above sounds like a conclusion, and yet I haven’t even mentioned the content of the conference, the sessions themselves. Hour-and-a-quarter-long sessions in which an expert (or a panel thereof) expounds on a topic about which she knows just about everything. These were the interesting bits: don’t let my thoughts in the above section imply otherwise. With exactly one glaring exception (which ORA’s press liaison assured me it strives to avoid), the sessions were excellent. Dense chunks of well studied practically useful information on topics ranging from setting up Mac OS X computer labs, to home automation, to a spectacular double-length session on Xcode. And while I’m not a professional programmer, I enjoyed learning about Incredibly Obvious Software Development Secrets, if only because it gave me some idea of how one company (I’m deliberately resisting the urge to plug, here) manages to do it right when so many others get it wrong.

Perhaps because Panther was so new, having come out just days before the conference began, the sessions and keynotes on OS X itself largely repeated the same things: everyone was impressed with the same new features, and had discovered pretty much the same handful of cool tricks. That’s really nothing more than a timing issue, I think, but it’s worth mentioning. The OS X Conference’s strengths were where it went beyond just OS X.

One session-that-wasn’t-a-session is worthy of specific mention, because with due respects to Andy’s sense of humour, it was my favorite part of the conference. Tuesday night Srinidhi Varadarajan gave an hour-and-a-half long presentation on the G5 supercluster at Virginia Tech. To say I was “geeked out” does not begin to describe it. While I’d read about the supercluster before attending the conference, I frankly wasn’t astonished by it until I heard Dr. Varadarajan speak, outlining the entire process of putting it together, from getting funding and picking out a processor (and placing a rather large order from the Apple Store) to building the facilities, designing a cooling system, connecting all the machines, and writing the requisite software. ORA had let him know he could get technical and told him his audience wasn’t laymen but cream of the crop computing professionals: and so he let loose with a lot of detail I hadn’t seen elsewhere. Cannonball’s write-up on MacSlash isn’t eloquent, but it’s thorough. If you’re curious check it out, but let me add that reading about it is not the same as being there.


A big part of the conference, the second chunk of the Why are we here? question, is not, like the feel-good fun, listed in the events booklet. It takes place during the lunches and the breaks, even during the sessions and keynotes in whispers or in messages from one iChat user to another. A big part of the conference is the opportunity to interact with other high-end Mac geeks. Sitting around tables with random strangers, I met a few freelancers also covering the conference on press passes, talked a bit about publishing, writing, how they make a living outside of writing. I met a couple of folks from Apple and talked a bit about infrastructure, my curiosity whetted from the Development Secrets session, and things like why public betas just don’t really work for a company as big as Apple with a product as big as OS X. And I talked with various people about making the leap from OS 9 to OS X, how to automate the process and do it quickly rather than one machine at a time.

Curiously enough, a big part of the conference isn’t the content itself, but rather people who attend. You’re not there just to learn about OS X and its various offshoots and related topics, or even to learn about them from experts; you’re there to learn about them among experts. Because in spite of the promises of technology, and in spite of my inability to put it into words to my satisfaction, there is something to face-to-face impromptu conversations which cannot be replicated with iChat and Web boards, something to information delivered in person that gets lost on Internet sites and video conferencing. Whatever that something is, we believe it has value, and it’s really that which pulls people in to a conference. At the end of the day, this high-tech Mac OS X conference depends on a difficult-to-describe shortcoming of technology for its very existence.


At last… and there are still things I didn’t cover, events and activities I didn’t even mention. I left the hotel and took a train to San Francisco and realized when I got to Fisherman’s Wharf that the air no longer smelled like Macintosh. For four days I had eaten, breathed, and slept Macs. It was, for me at least, a very long continuous chunk of time spent in great depth on only one of my interests.

As I walked barefoot on the sand at the edge of the Bay and an old man sang mumblingly in a language I didn’t know, I decided that Macs are for me just a means to an end, not an end in themselves. I don’t think I love technology as such in the way that many of the conference attendees do. No longer enclosed by the high-end Mac OS X world, I felt free, and it was refreshing. But if you’re a Mac geek who lives for technology, who loves the bleeding edge and seeks like-minded people, I seriously doubt you’ll find a better opportunity than O’Reilly’s Mac OS X Conference.

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