SALON Daily Clicks: Newsreal

Users still have reasons to flock to the Mac ...


Scott Rosenberg
January 11, 1997 1:00AM (UTC)

Each of the last several Macworld Expos has been portrayed as a wake for the beloved but struggling Macintosh. As this year's show started, the funereal sounds from the press were especially loud: Apple's purchase of NeXT had left its future plans fuzzy, and on the eve of the event the company announced a $100 to $150 million quarterly loss, prompting the usual dire comments from analysts.

That financial picture might hurt Apple and portend further layoffs at the company, but seasonal troubles for computer-makers are nothing new. This was a rough Christmas for most computer companies; it was simply a bad time to buy a new home computer. The Mac's future isn't really in the hands of Wall Street, anyway; if it was it would have disappeared long ago. What matters is the continued enthusiasm of Mac devotees, and there was plenty of that on display this week.

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On the floor and in the streets around San Francisco's Moscone Center, where an estimated 80,000 Mac loyalists gathered, the atmosphere was surprisingly upbeat. If users feared for the Mac's life, that wasn't stopping them from thronging to buy cool software and hardware -- and to reassert the Mac's status as the premier computer for innovators, artists and nonconformists of all stripes.

It was to this audience that the most visible company at the Expo, Mac clone-maker Power Computing, appealed with a goofball revolutionary-style promotional campaign. Gigantic Maoist-style banners featuring the face of Power Computing CEO Steve Kahng beamed down at conference goers, exhorting them to "Defend your OS choice or lose it!" Marine-style drill sergeants led the crowds at Power Computing's military-encampment style booth in chants of "Fight back for the Mac!" Outside, jeeps festooned with red-and-white Power Computing flags circled Moscone center with bullhorns to rally the faithful.

Power Computing's prominence demonstrated the maturing of the Mac clone market, which now also includes Motorola, Daystar and Umax. Power's biggest problem to date has been late shipments resulting from unexpectedly high demand for its systems. So there's one indication that the Mac's funeral may be premature.

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Among the other signs of life this week was Apple's announcement that it would ship a Mac system this year built around a new CPU from Exponential that runs at 500 mhz -- way faster than anything Intel has to offer the Windows multitudes. That seemed more significant than the much-ballyhooed 20th Anniversary Mac -- an overdesigned "computer of the future" that looks like it was dreamed up by Bang & Olufsen engineers on LSD.

MacWorld was packed with software innovations, too, many of them focused on the Net. Buzz centered around Coda, a new Web-site-building tool from a San Francisco startup called RandomNoise. Built in Java, it allows non-programmers to build Java-based Web sites easily, without writing code; it could spark a Java explosion on the Web, as code-averse designers begin to play with it.

Other hot products included the $99 CyberStudio, an easy-to-use MIDI studio for home musicians, and LivePicture's new tools for bringing high-resolution photography to the Web (Apple announced that its new file format, FlashPix, would be incorporated into the Mac's standard system-level Quicktime software). For lovers of the truly eccentric, one company showed off a "no-hands mouse" manipulated by foot pedals -- so you can now develop RSI in your ankles as well as your wrists.

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It's in the context of such general ferment that Apple CEO Gilbert Amelio's rambling Tuesday keynote seemed a disappointment (MacWorld's headline: "Amelio Blows It Big Time"). While Amelio trotted out celebrity guests, he failed to communicate Apple's operating-system strategy clearly. But it turned out that Apple really does have reasonably thorough answers to users' questions. Unfortunately, they were available from chief technical officer Ellen Hancock, or in a detailed Apple handout, or on Apple's Web site -- everywhere but from Amelio's podium, where the eyes of the world were turned.

Apple's dual-OS plan -- which asks users to stick with a steadily upgraded MacOS for another year or two while Apple and developers ready a next-generation OS built around NeXT technologies and Mac interfaces -- is a little clearer now. Will users wait? Will developers come through? Tune in with us to next year's Apple Funeral Expo and we'll see.

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... But programmers exhibit mixed feelings.

By DAN SHAFER

Macintosh software developers' reactions to Apple's new OS strategy seem to depend largely on their size and experience.

Small developers -- many of whom are in the first or second year of being on their own -- have reacted to the latest Apple news with a strange admixture of panic and excitement. Medium, large and corporate developers, as well as small groups and individuals who have been working with Apple for longer than a couple of years, seemed inclined to yawn and take the latest bump in the road in stride.

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The first companies who will feel the impact of Apple's OS switch most swiftly are those who sell tools to other developers. And they were not happy. "There's a lot of panic out here," Chris Stasny, President of Staz Software, the company that makes the most popular dialect of the BASIC programming language for the Macintosh, FutureBasic. "It's not really justified, but it's real."

Staz, as he's known to a fanatically loyal following of some 3,000 active FutureBasic developers, admits he used to be among those who panicked. "But I guess I saw enough so-called 'dramatic changes' over time and noticed how long they took to happen and how many of them never did come to fruition, that I take a much longer view of things." He says, his company is "in no hurry" to develop NeXT or Rhapsody (the code name for the OS that finally merges the two near-term OS systems) versions of FutureBasic.

"It will be at least 5 and one-half years before the broad masses of users will be running on the new, modern OS," Staz says, "Long before that happens, we'll be ready to support our developers."

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Less experienced programmers seem both excited at the prospect of using the world-class development tools available from NeXT and fearful that they will not have time to learn it all. "There's so much new stuff in here," one 20-something coder said as he held his head in mock pain after hearing a presentation from NeXT engineers about the application creation process on NeXT systems. "But it's way cool! I wish I could start learning it today, but I have to make a living and right now nobody's buying NeXT stuff from little guys like me."

Some of the small development tools shops are putting their plans on hold to see what Apple will do next. Bill Stackhouse of Stone Tablet Publishing summed up their doubts. "Application developers are tired of investing in Apple technology only to have them ripped out from under them. Do we stay with the MacOS? Do we have to move to NeXT to get anything done?"

Several developers were skeptical of the two-year window Apple has suggested for the merger of the current MacOS and the "Modern Operating System" into the Rhapsody product. "It takes two years to develop a new piece of software and get it to mature in the market," one told Salon. "If I wait a year to start, can I finish in time?"

One other major concern arose time and again in conversations with developers: besides the learning curve, there's a $3000 to $5,000 entry barrier to getting your hands on the NeXT hardware and software to start learning the new environment. "Steve [Jobs] kept saying on the keynote that we can get our hands on this technology today," Stackhouse pointed out. "What he didn't say was that to do so we had to buy a Windows machine."

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Larger application companies like Adobe, Macromedia and Microsoft can afford to gamble a little. They already have multi-platform development strategies in place; adding one more isn't such a big deal.

Frank Leahy of Digital Comet, a maker of Web site management and automation tools, was one of the smaller developers with similar foresight. He saw from his company's beginning a year ago that he needed a cross-platform strategy. "I'll move my stuff to whatever platform the market says it wants to use to develop or serve Web content," he said.

Apple needs the developer community. There doesn't seem to be a mass exodus from the Mac but too much wait-and-see could have that effect. It's up to Heidi Roizen, Apple's VP of Developer Relations, and Ellen Hancock, R&D chief, to clarify the message, bring the NeXT tools within reach, and outline a compatibility strategy that will allow programmers to stop holding their breath and start coding again.


Can Apple make everyone happy? Is NeXT going to work out? Was Macworld a funeral to you? Come to Table Talk and post your thoughts.


Quote of the day

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Penmanship

Just as salesgirls in department stores all have bad feet from standing for so many hours, prostitutes tend to be very self-destructive people who need a lot of attention.

-- A sample sentence from "Once More With Feeling," by Michelle, Lisa, Sophie, Jewel, Tatiana and Jennifer (Dove Books), one of the 140,000 new books published in 1996. (From "Put Pen to Paper These Days, You'll Be a Published Author," in Friday's Wall Street Journal.)


Scott Rosenberg

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of MediaBugs.org. He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at Wordyard.com.

MORE FROM Scott Rosenberg



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