Harmony Shattered

By Henry Bortman

August 8, 1996

Just when you think you know what's going on, someone always throws a wrench in the works. When you're dealing with Apple Computer, this is a daily occurrence.

After announcing a mere three months ago that it would deliver Mac OS 8 in mid 1997 and an interim system-software version (code-named Harmony) some time early in 1997, Apple is now taking it all back.

Well, sort of. There's still going to be a Harmony it seems. And nobody can say, really, that what will now be in Harmony will be different than what was going to have been in Harmony -- because Apple never said what was going to be in Harmony in the first place.

But Apple has said what will be in Mac OS 8. Now, however, it says there won't be a Mac OS 8, at least not the Mac OS 8 we had previously come to know and love -- and wait endlessly for.

I could end this right here by suggesting that this, then, is Apple's new software strategy: Don't tell people what's coming -- that way, you'll never disappoint them.

But I had a different point in mind.

First, let me tell you what the new strategy is. It's the old strategy. Not the latest old strategy -- the one before that. That is to say, Apple will no longer, it claims, deliver mongo lots-of-new-stuff-in-one-big-package system-software releases. Instead, it will deliver new technology in smaller chunks, about twice a year.

Never mind the support nightmare this is going to cause for IS managers. That's a topic for another column, which can wait until Apple actually manages to get two system-software releases out the door within the same 12-month period.

There's another, less obvious problem with this approach. It's all fine to deliver in bits and pieces the likes of Cyberdog or QuickTime updates or QuickDraw 3D or some new search engine. But how does one go about delivering in little releasettes preemptive multitasking or a microkernel-based OS or a Patch Manager that antiquates all extensions and control panels or a new file system? Dr. Amelio, when asked this question by no less than three people at the press luncheon immediately following his unveiling of the new approach, didn't really have an answer.

MacUser recently conducted an online poll [ http://macuser.zdnet.com/poll.html ], the results of which are published in our October issue. The question we asked was which feature of Mac OS 8 users would most like to see in Harmony. More than 6,000 people responded. The results are illuminating.

Although this was a group of people who are obviously Web-savvy -- the poll was conducted entirely via MacUser's Web site -- only 9 percent put Internet integration into the OS at the top of their list. Another 8 percent opted for new Finder features. Over one quarter of the respondents (27 percent) urged Apple to implement preemptive multitasking posthaste. And a whopping 56 percent pleaded for improved system stability.

Now, look at this data in light of Apple's new system-software-delivery approach. What's Apple likely to get out the door quickly? Internet integration. And new Finder features. And what's likely to wait months, perhaps a year or more to find its way to loyal users' desktops? That which they crave most: stability and preemptive multitasking (which I would argue people say they want when what they really want is protected memory -- which brings us back to stability yet again). In fact, the very fundamental technologies that must be overhauled to deliver improved stability are those system features that Apple's new software-delivery method doesn't address. And when asked about these features, the company doesn't have answers, much less a timetable.

Apple wants to be more responsive to customers. Six thousand customers have just spoken. So, Apple: Respond.

Copyright 1996