OpenStep + Copland = Apple Rhapsody

The Apple OS saga continues, with a developer version of Rhapsody OS due in six months. Is convergence in the offing? Extremely unlikely, says Sutherland Lyall

You’ll have already heard more than enough about Apple’s acquisition of ex-Apple co-founder/ NeXT boss Steve Jobs and his NeXT operating system OpenStep, and how the resulting new Mac operating system, Rhapsody, is promised in a developer version in six months’ time with increasingly firm versions at six-monthly intervals. And that the current System 7 will be continued for three or four years with regular upgrades. The current Mac graphic user interface will also remain. Pundits recently urged Apple to forget backward compatibility in the name of faster and cleaner operation. And they called for Apple to hang loose about everything, including the appearance of the graphic user interface, on the grounds that OpenStep’s was as good as that fronting System 7. It now looks as though Apple may have fudged both issues.

Corporate users aren’t going to be all that enthusiastic about six-monthly upgrades. Cynical MBAs contend that the primary function of software upgrades is to maintain staff levels in highly paid corporate IT teams. Especially with such a small time between them as here proposed.

It’s early days for anyone to know exactly which bits from the stalled Copland and which bits from OpenStep are going to end up in Rhapsody, but expect bloodletting in Cupertino as the two teams slug it out for supremacy. Office politics will be just as important an ingredient in the selections as common sense and user needs. One intriguing side- note is that UNIX, in one or another of its incarnations, is the OS which graphics workstations such as Sun and SGI use. UNIX is also the original OS for Internet boffs and is still the most used OS on Net servers. OpenStep has an awful lot of UNIX in it. Does this herald convergence? Almost certainly not.

Much more interesting than these long-term hopes and promises from Apple is news that there will probably be a 500MHz-plus Exponential PowerPC chip available in the middle of the year. You’ll probably need one of the forthcoming Macs to run it on rather than a clone. But this chip, plus a continuation of low-priced RAM chip, which enables you to stuff your motherboards to the gills with those funny little DIMM boards, may mean that even

Photoshop can edge towards effects-application at something approaching real-time speeds. Or maybe a dual processor clone such as UMAX’s 200×2 S900-series will have a similar effect.

Perhaps. But the perceived difference in performance may not be all that great. A logarithmic increase in chip speed is, whatever the computer magazine test oscilloscopes say, perceived by users as only an arithmetic increase. Depressing for chip makers on the back of the MegaHertz tiger is that after three weeks of working with the fastest chip you’ve got used to it and you’re clamouring for more speed.

Better news is the recent release of Adobe’s Photoshop 4 and PageMaker 6.5, together with Macromedia’s FreeHand Graphic Studio version 7, which, at a pinch, is all any designer really needs. The latter is excellent value and includes xRes 3, Shockwave, Extreme 3D version 2, Fontographer 4.1 and FreeHand 7 – all for an upgrade price of 160. These are good, solid apps which, providing you aren’t committed to Quark and Illustrator, you will eventually acquire as a matter of course.

But what is their Rhapsodic future? Like all the major Apple software companies, Adobe and Macromedia were never consulted about the NeXT move. According to the local spokesperson, “Adobe is having discussions at senior levels” with Apple and is hoping that it may only have to optimise its cross-platform code. Nothing has been decided yet. Macromedia’s UK MD, Sue Thexton, says: “We’ll be supporting Rhapsody, but we’re not in a position to talk about re-coding until we know what it looks like.” That’s what everyone is going to say for the next six months.

Were I either company, I’d be sharpening gelding knives, because for the next three or four years they are going to have to support both Mac operating systems in a market which stays the same small size as before – and which will diminish if Apple misses any of its deadlines or if interim performance is below scratch. Save your tears – all their applications have long been ported to Windows NT which is here now. And there’s the ultra-fast DEC Alpha chip and multi-processor NT technology from people like Guildford-based Direction.

One argument against such a migration might well be enshrined in this month’s announcement by Microsoft on technologies which integrate computers and TV. Just when you’re completing that brilliant bit of onion skinning on the new quad Alpha chip machine, Channel 56 bursts out unannounced in a window on-screen showing an unstoppable 15-hour re-run of I Love Lucy.

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