Apple hopes to 'tame Unix' with OS X

Declaring last week that Apple Computer has built a product that will set the stage for the next 15 years of computing, Apple CEO Steve Jobs unveiled the final release of OS X, the company's new operating system. When the long-awaited OS finally became available to the public yesterday, it marked the end of a sven-year process at Apple to create a new operating system for the company's flagship Macintosh computers.

But messages from Apple's top management indicate that OS X's marketing strategy will be shaped by a more recent set of IT trends, including the rise of Linux and the subsequent increase in interest in Unix and open standards. Apple management is also interested in encouraging a Linux-like grassroots developer community.

Jobs and Apple software head Avie Tevanian repeatedly emphasized the fact that OS X is Unix. While it has been known for more than two years that Apple's new OS would be based on BSD Unix, Apple's emphasis when discussing the product has been on individual features -- the software's ease of use, attractive new Aqua GUI, and protected memory features.

But Jobs and company now seem to be changing directions slightly to seize the opportunity provided by the current state of Linux in the industry. The last two years of Linux-related buzz have created a unprecedented interest in Unix-compatible computer systems; however, no Linux distributor has created a compelling, easy-to-use product, so that demand is at least partly unmet. "No one has really been able to tame Unix yet," said Tevanian. "Have you ever tried printing on Linux?" And so Apple -- the company whose customers were playing with a point-and-click GUI while the rest of the world was wrestling with the MS-DOS command line -- has declared its intention to bring Unix to the masses. "By the end of the year, Apple will be the biggest distributor of Unix," said Jobs.

Democratizing development

An OS is useless without applications, of course. Tevanian also referred to the open source movement when covering this base, claiming that OS X had a ready-made "Linux-like community" of developers. OS X's compliance with the POSIX standard, combined with the availability of a third-party OS X port of the X Windowing System, means that hundreds of Unix applications should work on the new OS with little or no modification. Of course, most of those apps are command line utilities that will be of no interest to the typical home or business user. But the developers of such applications tend to work alone or in informal collaborative groups, and Apple's execs are encouraged by that kind of grassroots interest in their OS. They proudly showed Web sites that hosted dozens of OS X applications written by groups and individuals who had no relationship whatsoever with Apple.

Seeking to build on that momentum, Apple is including in the OS X packaging a CD that holds a slew of compilers, IDEs, and RAD tools. Tevanian stated that one of Apple's goals was for OS X to "enable next-generation killer apps." The development tools that come with the OS, when used in conjunction with the company's Carbon and Cocoa development frameworks, will help developers focus on their ideas rather than their applications' plumbing, according to Tevanian. Companies interested in rapid application development might find such tools useful -- and Apple itself needs to build up a base of OS X apps as quickly as possible. When asked whether the development tools would still accompany OS X this summer when the new OS starts shipping preinstalled on Macs, the assembled Apple management shrugged: they were unsure how the early adopter crowd would take to the prospect of becoming developers, but were clearly hoping for results.

An incomplete picture

A desire to put the Mac's most loyal followers to work creating OS X apps might have been one reason behind the push to release the OS now, despite the absence of crucial features. The company's series of multimedia "digital lifestyle" applications, heavily promoted over the last year, are absent from the shipped CD. An OS X version of the music manager iTunes is available for download; however, it won't be able to burn CDs like its OS 9 counterpart. That functionality won't be available until later in the spring. Also missing are iMovie, Final Cut Pro, and support for playing DVD movies. Though Jobs dismissed the idea that anyone might stay away from OS X specifically because of those omissions, they do make the operating system seem somewhat half-baked.

Another reason Apple needs to get OS X out on the market is that it has been so very long in coming. The operating system that currently ships on Macs is a direct descendant of the OS that ran the first 128-KB Macintoshes Apple sold in 1984; for the past 17 years, Apple's OS development has been evolutionary, rather than revolutionary. Apple committed to revamping its venerable OS in 1994, a decision spurred in part by a similar project from Microsoft. But while Redmond's efforts bore fruit only a year later with Windows 95, Apple's project meandered on for better than half a decade. A major change in direction occurred in December 1996, when Apple bought Next and company founder Steve Jobs reassumed control; much of the intellectual property Jobs brought over from Next found its way into OS X.

When pressed, Jobs and his managers seemed sanguine about Apple's prospects. Jobs asserted that Apple was healthy; he pointed to the fact that the company was essentially debt-free and had $4 billion in cash on hand. When a reporter remarked that Motorola's recent financial woes might mean trouble for the PowerPC chip used in all of Apple's computers, Jobs snapped, "You're wrong. You don't know what you're talking about," and moved on to the next question. The Mac faithful, who have waited so long for OS X, must now hope that the confidence of Jobs and his managers is justified.

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