Hello Darkness My Old Friend


October 10, 1996

Some people just can't stand the sound of silence. In a world filled with every possible form of media, a vacuum is abhorred. People will do anything to get rid of it.

The silence I'm referring to now is Apple's future plans for the Mac OS. Apple has been quite cagey about the whole thing since it announced the new OS strategy two months ago, and in the absence of official comment from the mother ship, all kinds of weird theories abound.

First of all, there's the Be rumor. It's all fine and dandy to welcome Be, Inc. to the PowerPC platform. I will be happy to experiment with this OS when it comes to my Mac. But because of the silence from Apple, people think that the BeOS should replace whatever Apple has planned for Mac OS 8. Hello? You want to replace a ten-year-old metaphor with an OS that doesn't even have half the services of System 7.5? If you want to replace System 7.5 with an operating system that's multi-threaded, with preemptive multitasking and protected memory, why not use MkLinux? At least Unix is a mature operating system.

And another thing: Do you really think that Apple engineers have been sitting on their collective butts twiddling their thumbs all this time? No, I didn't think so. Features in Mac OS 8 have been ready. People have seen them. They were shown at this year's WWDC and Macworld Boston. It's not like the features of the BeOS that people admire aren't in the next version of the Mac OS. It would take just as long, if not longer, to get the BeOS to a point where you could get work done on it. Remember, this machine has been marketed as a hobbyist's dream. A hobbyist with a compiler, maybe - there aren't many apps available for it.

The reason it's taking so long for the next version of the Mac OS to come out is that there's been a lot of head scratching in Cupertino about backwards compatibility. And this is a big deal. One of the nicest things about a Mac is its compatibility. I recently played a game written in 1990 for System 7.0 on my System 7.5.5 Power Mac. And it worked. Like a charm. No crashing. Nada. Try running a program written six years ago on a PC under the current OS and a different chip architecture (if you can). Backwards compatibility with existing programs is a wonderful selling point.

However, services like a native file system, preemptive multitasking and protected memory break the way these older programs were written. And this is the dilemma which Apple's been wrestling with for the past few years: Do we just tell people they have to buy new versions of all their software, or do we spend the next year trying to figure out how to make it all work, even though we know it will be a buggy kludge? Prior to Dr. Gil's arrival, the attitude was apparently, "Let's talk about it in a meeting next week - order plenty of sand for us to bury our heads under and maybe the problem will go away."

Speaking of backwards compatibility, that's another rumor being ground through the mill. Apparently Ellen Hancock said in an interview that she'd rather sacrifice backwards compatibility to get new features. And there's now all kinds of speculation on exactly what she meant. "Did she mean that no backwards compatibility means they're paving the way to use Be?" "She didn't really mean that, how could Apple sacrifice all the current products - after all, nobody's writing for the Mac now anymore anyways and you wouldn't want there to be no products for the new OS, right?" "She really meant that they'll keep backwards compatibility in mind but not let it win every decision."

Maybe all or none of the above. Maybe they haven't decided everything yet. Folks, software development, especially with the scope of an entire operating system, does not run on Internet time. It takes time to figure out how much time a feature will take to be implemented, tested, and integrated. Let's just stop speculating (fun as it may be) on what Apple is going to do, and wait for them to do it (or announce it, anyway). We don't need to talk simply to hear the sound of our own voices.

And Apple: Developers really do need to know what's going on with the OS. Which features will be in next July's release? What will be in the next one? It shouldn't take much more time than two months to decide future OS strategies.

Kathy Tafel <ktafel@macaddict.com> isn't just a MacAddict associate editor and games guru, she's also been lauded as a "Web Mistress and Rave goddess" [ http://www.textureweb.ns.ca/birdland/music.html ].

Copyright 1996