apple CEO Gilbert Amelio took center stage at the Macworld Expo in San Francisco Tuesday to explain the company's operating system strategy -- and to reassure Mac loyalists that they would not be left adrift as Apple merges with NeXT and builds a new OS.
It was a marathon, two-and-a-half-hour performance that took its theme from "Independence Day," which Apple has been featuring in ads that say: "When you've got just 28 minutes to save the planet, better hope you've got the right computer." Jeff Goldblum, one of the heroes in "Independence Day," even turned up on the podium to introduce Amelio, and talked about "combining forces to strike a blow for humanity."
No doubt Apple's engineers and marketers wish that they could plug NeXT into the Mac universe as effortlessly as Goldblum's "Independence Day" character was able to network his Powerbook with an alien spaceship's computers. In the real world, operating systems are anything but plug-and-play; they require massive development efforts and long-term strategies.
Maybe that's why all the talk about "saving the world" during the Amelio marathon was just a little unsettling. The suffocatingly thick crowds had gathered to hear something far more mundane: how Amelio and company plan to save their operating system.
Amelio got to that, but not before lengthy ramblings, a ritualistic trotting-out of executives and celebrities, and an overextended bout of technology demonstrations.
Regarding the $100-150 million quarterly loss Apple just announced, Amelio explained that "Santa never came" this year; in other words, Apple sold a lot fewer Performas than it hoped. But the company's still sitting on a $1.7 billion cash reserve, so not to worry.
Instead, Amelio wanted us to see some of the cool stuff Apple's researchers are working on -- like "knowledge management systems" that automate the summarizing of documents and "data detectors" that lift addresses, phone numbers and Web addresses from documents and pop them into databases.
Thanks, Gil, but everyone knows Apple always has neat projects simmering in the labs. What about that operating system?
Oh, he'd get to that. But first some special guests. Jim Barksdale of Netscape tells us how many Macs he owns. A Microsoft exec wishes Apple well. (Really.) Sun's Eric Schmidt reassures us that "Apple really gets it about the Net." Peter Gabriel wants us to know that "The Mac has been a great friend to artists."
Yes, thanks, but what about that operating system?
Okay, okay, but first look at this video about airplane designer Burt Rutan, who built the instrument panel of an experimental aircraft around a Powerbook and has "had no reliability problems at all."
Wish I could say that about my Powerbook. So, about that OS...
Amelio took pains to insist that Apple was not abandoning the current MacOS, System 7. Indeed, the most enthusiastic response of the day from the audience came during the demo of Tempo, the next System 7 upgrade, due for a July release. Tempo will introduce the upgraded Finder file-management system from Apple's aborted Copland operating system; it will be multithreaded, which means you can do things with more than one file at once. As Tempo copied two files simultaneously while also launching an application, the Macworld crowd cheered. This was the sort of thing they'd been waiting for from Apple for too long -- not saving the world.
Tempo will be followed by two more upgrades to System 7 in 1998. These upgrades will gradually merge with the new OS Apple will build based on NeXT's technology, code-named Rhapsody. Rhapsody will be built around the same "kernel" or core system that NeXT uses -- a version of Unix known as Mach.
So will Rhapsody run Mac software? Eventually. Amelio finally got around to the slide that showed his OS strategy. At the bottom, a layer labeled PowerPC. That's the chip, the hardware. Above that, a layer labeled "Modern Core OS." That must be Rhapsody. Above that, the layer is split into a "blue box" and a "yellow box."
The yellow box is where the applications built on the new NeXT-based system will run; the blue box is where "legacy" Mac applications will run. The blue box, Amelio explained, is not an emulation -- "it's all about compatibility, and it will provide equal or better performance than you get today" (except with certain applications that talk directly to the computer's hardware).
This little blue box, which will not arrive until mid-1998, seems mighty important, and it's good to know that Apple has its color scheme worked out. But the haste with which Amelio rushed through this central explanation was unnerving. It did not inspire confidence, and that was what Amelio needed to do.
Steve Jobs, at least, beamed confidence when he took the stage to show how wonderful his Next software is -- how speedily OpenStep can develop new applications, how network-friendly his OS is, and how many different Quicktime movies it can run simultaneously. And nifty these tools were indeed. But they're not exactly new, and how well they will migrate to Apple's OS and user base remains an open question.
Jobs at least spoke directly to the group that will have the most influence on the fate of Apple's strategy -- the developers who will need to flock to the new software if it is to succeed. "We've got to get the spark back with the developers," Jobs said.
For his part, Amelio seemed to be paying dutiful but unenthusiastic tribute to the developers -- and avoiding details about the OS as much as possible. He rushed through the end of his presentation and ushered Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak onto the stage for a photo-op with Jobs.
By the end, Amelio had spent more time welcoming "special guests" in the audience like Muhammad Ali, Gregory Hines, Sinbad and top execs from PacTel and Bank of America than he had introducing what should have been the guest of honor -- his own company's strategy.
It's still impossible to predict where Apple's NeXT move will take it. If Tempo is as much fun as it looks, that may give Apple a breather with its current user base -- and time to properly crossbreed NeXT's software with its own. But shouldn't these features have been available long ago? Isn't that the root of Apple's problem today?
Apple has said, "Trust us -- it's coming in six months" too many times before for the promise to evoke much excitement today. Maybe that's why Amelio worked so hard today to bury the substance of his talk under a mountain of demos and cameos.