This is an interesting time for Apple Computer, which seems finally to have faced the fact that it has failed in the PC marketplace now dominated by Microsoft's Windows 95. According to a recent Dataquest report, Apple has just 7 percent of the world's computer market, while Windows 95 machines account for 70 percent of the market.
Apple is readying itself to fight back. At press time, the company was furiously releasing news and information about its acquisition of NeXT, the company owned by Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, and about how the Nextstep operating system will enhance the Mac operating system (OS) already in development. Let's take a look at what the next few years will bring for Macintosh users.
The next Macintosh OS you see won't necessarily be based on Nextstep. Apple intends to keep releasing Mac OS 7.x versions for the next few years; future versions will assimilate the two operating systems together (under the name Rhapsody). According to most reports, Nextstep already incorporates many of the features Mac users are familiar with, including plug-and-play for PCI add-on cards and AppleTalk client software for connecting to servers and printing. It also has support for power management functions, important to PowerBook users.
Still, this OS is not "ready for Mac." In fact, it doesn't even currently run on Macintosh hardware. Some experts estimate we'll be nearing the year 2000 before we see a true Nextstep-based OS from Apple. Which begs the question: Why did Apple spend $400 million on an OS that still needs years of development to suit its needs?
My guess: The internally designed Mac OS 8.0 was going to take just as long or longer to develop and may not have been as robust. Technically, Nextstep has what it takes to make the Mac OS extremely powerful, including support for pre-emptive multitasking, multithreading and symmetric multiprocessing. It's also object-oriented, which makes it easy for software developers to create programs for it.
Apple knows its users have invested a lot of time and money in its current Mac OS, and it wants them to know they won't have to dump the Mac OS for Rhapsody--at least, not for a few years.
Still, Rhapsody may never support current Mac OS 7.x software and hardware, although Apple has every intention of making the upgrade path easy and seamless (let's hope they're as successful as Microsoft has been with the upgrade from Windows 3.x to Windows 95/NT). Apple is calling the support and development of Mac OS 7.x and Rhapsody a "dual-track approach," designed to make the transition to the new OS as painless as possible. Apple wants users to feel comfortable buying and using Macintosh hardware and software today because, it promises, the new Mac OS will be backwards-compatible. Both Rhapsody and future Mac OS versions will be optimized for the PowerPC platform.
Apple plans to update Mac OS 7.x on a semiannual basis--in fact, the company has already planned for and code-named three future releases: Tempo, Allegro and Sonata. Tempo is scheduled to ship mid-1997 and will include a PowerPC-native multi-threaded Finder for executing multiple tasks. It will also include some new Internet features, such as Mac OS Runtime for Java and Web serving capabilities, which will permit every user to host a Web site from his or her own Mac.
Apple gained quite a bit of Internet technology when it purchased NeXT. Some experts are claiming that WebObjects, a server-based technology that can build HTML pages on the fly (by calling data from a corporate database, Java and ActiveX applets, Shockwave and RealAudio files, and more), was the coup in the NeXT acquisition. This is revolutionary Web technology, and, if Apple plays its cards right, WebObjects could make the company one of the biggest players in Internet development.
WebObjects can be accessed from virtually any popular browser, including Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Internet Explorer. The biggest benefit WebObjects offers over standard HTML is that pages can be customized for each user. This means, for example, you could visit your favorite travel services site and find a page personalized with your name, address and member number, as well as offers and selections tailored to your purchasing history or pre-stated tastes. Additionally, Apple plans to add TCP/IP connectivity to make it easier for Mac users to connect to Internet providers. Java will also be tightly integrated into both the Mac OS and Rhapsody.
Apple has long been a leader in multimedia. Its QuickTime program is the video player of choice on Windows, Macintosh and Internet systems. QuickTime lets software vendors create and deliver synchronized graphics, sound, video, text and music. According to Apple, QuickTime is used on an estimated 25,000 Web sites and by 1,500 CD-ROM developers. Apple QuickTime Media Layer (QTML), a cross-platform technology that allows developers to create synchronized graphics, sound, video, text and music for CD-ROM and the Internet, will be fully optimized for both the Mac OS and Rhapsody.
In The Future
Apple is thinking about its future in a big way. Gone are the days when it could afford to be elitist and assume users would come to their senses and adopt the Macintosh platform. Apple missed that boat years ago. Today, the company is redefining itself to work through past mistakes--including its ill-fated decision to keep its operating system proprietary and not allow other hardware manufacturers to license it. Now there are several third-party hardware vendors selling Mac clones, including Motorola, Power Computing, and DayStar Digital. Apple will further expand this broad view by developing and selling NeXT-based software for competing operating systems, including Windows NT and Sparc.
It looks as if many in the computing industry are supporting the changes at Apple. Even Microsoft recently announced it will design and develop a Mac version of Microsoft Office. Still, there are naysayers--especially stock market analysts who have watched Apple's profits take a nosedive over the past few years.
We can only watch and hope that Apple can keep its promise to develop one of the most powerful operating systems for the next century.
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Cassandra Cavanah is a former executive editor of PC Laptop magazine and has reported on the computer industry for eight years.
MVP Solutions, P.O. Box 533, Mountain View, CA 94043-0533;
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