21st: Apple apostates

Veteran Mac software developers are working for Microsoft. Do they feel they've "gone over to the dark side"? No way.

Published September 25, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

Many die-hard Macintosh devotees still think of Bill Gates as the Antichrist. But a growing cadre of veteran Macintosh software developers are calling him boss -- and loving it.

One contingent is working at Microsoft Bay in San Jose, Calif., where Microsoft is improving its Java and Internet Explorer browser for Macs. A compact box compared to the sprawling Redmond campus, Microsoft Bay is filled with a collection of Apple's former software stars.

"The great majority of us in this office are ex-Apple [employees] or at least ex-Apple [third-party] developers, and we are as interested in Apple's fate as any other Apple developer," says Scott Knaster, who has worked at Microsoft Bay just over a year.

A cult figure in the world of the Apple faithful, Knaster is author of "How to Write Macintosh Software," the bible for early Mac software developers. He came to Microsoft, he says, because it was the only place interested in creating Mac software.

"Everywhere I interviewed, I said all my experience is Mac, and I'd like to continue doing Mac software. Every place I went, they rolled their eyes when I said that -- except for Microsoft. Which is really ironic, but that's one of the main reasons that I came here," Knaster says.

Java programmer and longtime Mac user Rick Eames, who worked for Apple for three years and is now helping Microsoft implement Java on the Mac, talks glowingly of his new colleagues at Microsoft Bay.

"The ironic thing is that I work with Scott [Knaster] now, and I learned programming from Scott's books before I knew who he was. There are a few people here who I admired for years. One guy is on my Java team. He helped me way back when I worked at Apple. He was on the Hypercard team. He helped with any questions I had. That was how I learned, and now here he is," Eames says.

Microsoft Bay stands as a living refutation of the popular notion that Microsoft and Macintosh have been and must always be eternal enemies. Many Mac users understand that Microsoft has been the largest supplier of Mac software since the Mac platform's early days. More recently, Microsoft -- as part of its much-ballyhooed $150 million investment in Apple last month -- committed itself to continuing to supply its popular Office applications for Mac users for the next five years. And of course Microsoft is determined to keep developing Mac versions of its Web browser to press its struggle for market share with Netscape.

What does Apple think of the flow of Mac talent to Microsoft Bay? The company's "chief evangelist," Guy Kawasaki, is unruffled. "They are just hard-core Macintosh programmers who, very ironically, had a great opportunity to write the coolest Mac software they could come up with inside of Microsoft," he explains -- referring not only to Microsoft Bay but other Microsoft Silicon Valley outposts in Milpitas and Cupertino.

"These are people who see themselves as artists and scientists. And when they look at themselves they say their loyalty is to their art. Their art is their software. The fact that a company that is possibly heinous is publishing your art can be separated in their minds from the fact that at least they get to do art," says Kawasaki.

How do these software artists feel about working for the company that the public and the media, if not they themselves, often picture as an all-devouring Evil Empire? Pretty good, it seems.

Eames says Microsoft's corporate culture and management structures make it easier to create quality programming -- and to get products out into the market. "Working for Apple is a very frustrating experience because Apple is extraordinarily good at inventing things, but extremely bad at competing," Eames explains.

At Apple, according to Eames, "There are smart people at the bottom and sometimes smart people at the top. But generally, that middle zone is where there's not a lot of smart people." At Microsoft, on the other hand, the intelligence is evenly spread from the bottom up. As a result, "I think that projects here are killed a lot quicker if they're stupid," Eames explains. "I could think of all the technologies that Apple's put out over the last four or five years -- and the only one of them that's caught on is QuickTime. That indicates some weird thinking going on."

Today's Microsoft also has cash to burn on research and development in sums no other company can match. That helps attract special talents -- like those of Steve Capps, who was a key developer of the Macintosh Finder in the 1980s and the lead developer of Apple's Newton.

Capps explains how he came into the Microsoft fold: "We were going to do a start-up, and we kept on going and talking to venture capitalists. And we would say, 'We've got these 10 ideas,' and they would go, 'We don't want you to have 10 ideas. We want you to have one idea.'"

Then Capps was approached by Brad Silverberg, the Microsoft senior vice president in charge of applications and browsers. "He said, 'We love people who have 10 ideas. Why don't you just do that for us?'" Capps recalls. "I looked at it. It started to make tons of sense. Here was a company that was willing to fund 10 ideas. What's funny is that, of those 10 ideas that we had, we're not working on any of them."

At Microsoft, programmers will not only have the satisfaction of their product reaching the mass market, but they'll have the full force of the company's powerful marketing team behind them -- an area in which Apple has often fumbled.

Brad Schrick, a technical consultant who specializes in Macintosh Web servers (and is not a Microsoft employee), says he is constantly frustrated by Apple's seeming inability to promote its own products -- products that are his livelihood. "Nobody knows that Apple uses its own machines for its Web applications. They have a server product that's a MacOS bundle, but nobody knows about it," says Schrick.

In addition to keeping developers happy with product shipments and subsequent promotions, Microsoft also offers the security of a large, stable and growing company. "As a developer, [leaving Apple for Microsoft] is a clear MBA-type decision," says Schrick. "At the same time, there are 20 million Mac customers. The population of Mac customers is still growing, and 20 million is a good-sized nation."

Strangely enough, by switching allegiances to Microsoft, developers like Knaster and Eames may inadvertently be helping to sustain Apple, which desperately needs third-party software products to keep Mac users happy.

Kawasaki maintains that the best Mac developers are better serving Apple by working at Microsoft. "The biggest problem that Apple faces today is that people think we're gonna die. If Microsoft keeps coming out with great Mac software, and Microsoft has a huge Macintosh effort -- and that makes people think that even a company as smart as Microsoft and as big as Microsoft isn't abandoning Macintosh, so Macintosh must be viable -- then people will think, 'It's OK for me to buy a Macintosh.'"

Knaster makes it clear, however, that his allegiance is no longer to Apple. Any benefits his former company receives are coincidental. "We work for Microsoft. We better think about Microsoft in everything we do. At the same time, if there's great software for Mac customers, that's gotta help Apple. I think that's true of any third-party developer. If you work for any company that makes software for the Mac, you would be loyal to your own company first, and you also better be loyal to the customers of the platform you're developing for. They're using what you make, in the end."

Today, with Apple closing down the Mac clone market and continuing doubts about the corporation's financial health, the future of that platform is more in doubt than ever before. That may be why industry observers speculate that many of Microsoft's Mac developers, like Knaster and Eames, will not be making Mac software for long. They'll join the ranks of Capps, who is now developing new interfaces for Microsoft's Windows.

Steven Levy, technology correspondent for Newsweek and the author of the Mac history "Insanely Great," says, "I think that the really smart Macintosh developers who Microsoft hires will not always be writing Mac software. They'll work on a Mac product that will come out; then they'll work on something else that won't necessarily be a Mac product."

"Microsoft is desperate to get the A-grade talent to do the software they want to do. And if I were working for Microsoft," Levy says, "I'd eventually want to be involved in the stuff that's at the center of Microsoft's activities."

Capps talks excitedly of his latest work, expanding user interfaces into new dimensions: "Everybody thinks the user interface should have these stupid icons and gray desktop and all that stuff. And that was a limitation of the technology. So few people realize that that was a kind of a compromise -- what you could do with technology in 1984. But now we're assuming that's normal, and it's really not. I just think we need to take the opportunity to do something different. We may be completely wrong, but that's the cool thing. That's what user interface is all about."

For Capps, Microsoft is the one place with enough money, resources and talent to attempt to "do something different," like develop voice-operated systems. "You look at what IBM and Dragon have demonstrated with their latest releases, this stuff is kind of useable. And everybody that knows anything about user interfaces realizes that an interface is going to have to be built around speech. So if I had to put my bets on who can define an interface around speech, it would be Microsoft," Capps says.

Regardless of what projects they end up working on, these programmers are quite clear: They're happy to be working for Bill Gates. When asked what he thinks of working for Microsoft, Eames replies simply, "I love it."

Capps says, "My heart's still with the Newton group at Apple, mostly with the people who still work there. But point out to me one person who's ever worked for Steve Jobs twice. You're kind of disposable in Steve's eyes -- and I've been disposed of."

He adds, laughing, "All the ex-Mac people will tell you, you only drink purple Kool-aid once."

By Jenn Shreve

Jenn Shreve writes about media, technology and culture for Salon, Wired, the Industry Standard, the San Francisco Examiner and elsewhere. She lives in Oakland, Calif.

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