News Analysis

Copland core MIA in OS update

By Henry Norr

August 15, 1996

When Apple disclosed its Mac OS strategy earlier this month, it got the form and content in tight alignment: The new plan to deliver Mac OS 8 technologies in increments over several years was dribbled out in fragments over the course of Macworld Expo in Boston.

The decision to switch strategies was made just days before the show by CEO Gilbert Amelio and new Chief Technical Officer Ellen Hancock. Caught off guard, lower-ranking officials were speculative and inconsistent when trying to fill in the details. And no one had a clear response to the most pressing question from developers and users: When will Apple ship Mac OS 8's core, microkernel-based technologies, such as protected memory, pre-emptive scheduling and symmetric multiprocessing plus the new I/O architecture, file system and patching mechanism?

A week later, one thing is clear: Apple can't offer answers to such questions because it simply doesn't have them yet.

Hancock has issued a directive to her engineering team to review the entire project for Mac OS 8, code-named Copland. The aim is eliminating all unessential interdependencies among its parts, so Apple can deliver to users as many of these technologies as possible, as soon as they are ready. Until that process is complete and management digests the results, there are no firm product plans or timetables.

The road so far

AppleSoft's new intent is clear, however. The delivery of Mac OS 8 technologies will now be a multiyear process, rather than a single-day event like the release of System 7.0 or Windows 95. At some point, Apple will drop the System 7 label and call the evolving operating system Mac OS 8. But that change will, in the current conception, be presented as just a milestone along a long, winding road rather than a sharp turn.

As described by Jim Gable, AppleSoft vice president of marketing, the strategy calls for major new technologies to be delivered in semiannual installments, which will be classified as releases.

These will be distributed as full, bootable versions of the Mac OS, rather than patches that work only atop previously installed system software. Also twice a year, on the quarters between releases, Apple will deliver smaller packages, called updates. Typically consisting of two or three floppy disks, according to Gable, updates will be limited to bug fixes and minor feature enhancements.

This strategy is an extension of plans announced in May, when the company said that pending the release of Mac OS 8 it would deliver a new version of System 7.5, code-named Harmony. That upgrade remains on tap for January. Contrary to earlier reports, Gable said it will still be known as Harmony.

Its focus has shifted, however. When Harmony was first announced, officials said they hoped to incorporate some Mac OS 8 technologies, most likely parts of the Copland "user experience," or interface. Those enhancements have now been put off until the second 1997 release, scheduled for July.

The January release will bring users up-to-date with the latest, post-System 7.5.3 versions of existing system components. The list of updates to be added includes QuickTime 2.5 and a new Open Transport, but the main focus will be on OpenDoc and Cyberdog, which will for the first time become standard OS features rather than optional extras.

Apple officials said the company has two goals for this package. One is to bolster the Mac's image as a state-of-the-art Internet platform. The competitive pressure is on because Microsoft Corp. is planning a year-end update to Windows 95, code-named Nashville, which will further integrate the Internet into its OS. Apple's other objective is to stimulate the emerging market in third-party Live Objects.

The July 1997 release, which Gable said does not have a public code name, will be the first to incorporate Mac OS 8-specific technologies. As with the original Harmony plan, the most likely candidates are interface innovations, such as spring-loaded folders and pop-up drawers. Apple also said it hopes to make the long-awaited PowerPC-native, multithreaded version of the Finder part of the July release.

But Copland's Appearance Manager -- the signature feature that will allow users to choose among a wide variety of desktop styles -- may not make the July cut. Its current design, Gable said, makes it partially dependent on lower-level technologies that are not likely to be ready by summer.

The road ahead

The plan for next year's operating system releases implies that the microkernel and related enhancements -- the technologies that were supposed to make Mac OS 8 a modern, high-performance, high-reliability, multitasking OS that could stand up to competitors such as Windows NT -- won't reach users until 1998 at the earliest.

Currently, most of these low-level features are interdependent, so they would have to be delivered in a single release. But Gable and Ike Nassi, senior vice president of AppleSoft, said engineering teams are currently engaged in an intensive effort to find ways to deliver even low-level features on an incremental basis.

"When I worked on BSD [Berkeley Standard Distribution] Unix, we used to rip out the kernel on a regular basis, and everything just kept running," Nassi said. "There are a lot of things you can do if you have a strong enough fire wall between the OS and the apps."

In some cases, Nassi added, Apple might decide to scale back features to speed the initial release. But in at least one area -- memory protection -- Apple is looking beyond the original Copland conception in hopes of finding ways to protect traditional applications as well as faceless background processes.

"It's the subject of very active investigation," Nassi said. "We have people working on a couple of different approaches, and we have not settled on one yet. We know memory protection is important, and we want it as soon as possible."

Copyright 1996