Can you afford to be a martyr for Apple?

If you believe all you read, Apple is on the point of zipping up its own body bag. It’s not just what you read in the newspapers. Worse is to be read in that section of the magazine press which is devoted to the Mac, especially in the US. Originally attracted by the heady haughtiness of the Cupertino Camelot, it has for years obligingly, enthusiastically and, perhaps cravenly, recorded Apple’s every tiny movement.

Now it’s as if this press cabal has just been shown the void. Scrambling back from its edge they’re looking for feeding hands to bite, trying out new neutral positions in case the unthinkable happens or, just as bad, hurling themselves into “save Apple” mode which is closer to nutty martyrdom-in-waiting than independent journalism.

Yet it seems only proper to suggest that UK graphic designers and the production infrastructure need to start developing a prudent alternative-platform strategy – just in case the proposed new Apple operating system Rhapsody doesn’t pan out successfully.

The final tight, bells and whistles version of Rhapsody is not billed to appear any earlier than two years from now, and in the computer world that’s a very long time. But two years is also a long time for computer kit and, especially with the very recent 25 per cent price cut on PowerMacs, a wait-and-see policy may be sound enough. My feeling is that I’d like to have worked out what the options are before anything happens. It’s a bit like contemplating conversion to the United Reform church when you’ve been a committed celebrant of the clap-happy – and now defunct – Nine O’Clock Service.

Apple still has a great deal to clarify. We now know that the Rhapsody kernel will be based on that used in the NeXT operating system, not on Copland’s proposed kernel. But there’s still a question about QuickDraw – will it actually be supplanted by Bravo, a version of Adobe’s DisplayPostscript currently used by NeXT? And why has Adobe so far kept stumm about openly supporting the Rhapsody adventure? Is it waiting for agreement on Bravo before waving the flags? Tight-lipped Adobe takes the view that as yet “there’s nothing to support” in terms of the reality of Rhapsody and points out that its apps are now all cross-platform and sales are split 50/50 between Mac and PC. “The perception that we’re an Apple operation isn’t quite so true now,” an Adobe spokesman said last week.

And what about all those people who invested heavily in NeXT and are only half reassured by Apple boss Gil Amelio’s letter promising support for some time yet? And is the return of original Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak to sit on the right hand of Amelio to balance ex-ditto Steve Jobs on the left a good thing? Meantime, Be Corp, loser in the buy-me Christmas scramble, has abandoned its hardware division and is concentrating on selling its operating system BeOs to Mac cloners. If BeOs is up and running soon enough Apple may have to buy it as well. Meantime, over in the other trenches, Unix, on which much of OpenStep is based, is claimed by some to be losing out to Windows NT, the operating system and platform about which Apple graphics evangelists are currently exceedingly unrelaxed.

Up at Silicon Graphics Grange they claim they’re not worried about NT and the fact that it can, in some circumstances, deliver just as much speed as their SGI workhorses and offers applications and kit which are a whole lot cheaper. The SGI market is, they say, driven by performance, not price. And there’s no doubt that if you’re in the price league and you’re doing 3D animations for adverts or Hollywood and you’ve got a deadline, you’re happy to equip yourself with a 50K-plus SGI machine which is as fast as last year’s 150K-plus SGI super computer. Maybe you get half a dozen if your client list is like that.

People were impressed last year with SGI’s 5000 blue blob O2 machine – at around 10 000 for a specified bit of graphics kit – but without software, which remained the usual stratospheric price. Now SG has brought out the Octane, a non-square box in a mildly unpleasant green and a conservative odd shape. It goes like the clappers and prices start at around 20 000 – and the old Indigo Impact has been reduced in price to 4000 or so. Needless to say, the Concorde versions of these boxes cost a lot more than these base prices. OK, so you’re contemplating a cross-platform strategy two years hence. But if by then, in the heady technological rush, Octane prices slide to Mac levels, and if more Mac software gets translated to SGI like Adobe’s Premiere, but at Mac prices, the conversion could be painless. At least it would be to another exclusive system and not common-as-muck Windows NT.

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