While much of the tech world slows down for the winter holidays, the Mac community is warming up for one of the biggest events of its traditional social calendar: Macworld Expo/San Francisco.
As we move into the final heat before Steve Jobs latest revelations, Mac users are keeping the home fires burning thanks to some small but interesting announcements from Apple Computer and some intriguing speculation about what the Mac maker has up its sleeve for 2003.
Among the items currently making the rounds are a couple of official revelations affecting the state of the Mac OS—the latest update to Mac OS X 10.2 and a temporary reprieve for users who want to boot their Macs out of Mac OS 9—and some new twists on the longstanding discussion about the prospects for Mac OS X on the x86 architecture.
Lets aim at the easy targets first. Apple last week took the wraps off Mac OS X 10.2.3, the latest in a steady series of updates the company has issued since introducing Mac OS X 10.2 (a k a Jaguar) in August.
Like the previous interim releases, the new version nails some bugs, boosts performance perceptibly on many systems and improves compatibility with a variety of peripherals. And as it did with Mac OS X 10.2.1, Apple has used this update as a low-key launchpad for some new features the company obviously didnt want to hold until next summer (when sources say Apple plans to release Mac OS X 10.3, code-named Panther).
Last time out, Apple surprised Mac users (at least those who hadnt read our coverage in eWEEK) by introducing a journaling option built atop Mac OS Xs HFS+ file system. This time, the company has improved the lot of gamers with system-level support for force feedback. And concurrent with the 10.2.3, Apple has introduced a preview Version 2.0 of the venerable AppleScript editor, which offers UI scripting to let power users control even those applications that dont support scripting.
As we near the halfway mark between Jaguar and Panther, its nice to know that Apple is keeping the game interesting with a steady trickle of nifty system-level enhancements.
Reprieve for Mac OS
Reprieve for Mac OS 9 Booting
In another announcement of interest to forward-thinking Mac professionals, Apple last week revealed that it has modified its September announcement that as of January, new Macs will boot into Mac OS X only.
Through June, professional users concerned about the shift—most notably customers of the QuarkXPress page-layout application, which hasnt yet made the leap to Mac OS X—will still be able to purchase Mac OS 9-bootable dual 1.25GHz Power Mac G4 towers (the current top of Apples line). In addition, education customers will be able to buy eMacs; iBooks; and CRT-based, low-end iMacs that can boot the classic Mac OS as well as Mac OS X.
While this news helps to quell the concerns of Mac customers worried about a seeming gap between platform support on new machines and the native capabilities of their keystone app, it doesnt really do much to blur Apples line in the sand. As of the San Francisco Expo, those Power Macs will probably be yesterdays news anyway.
Customers seeking to make a serious investment in state-of-the-art Mac hardware will most likely still have to choose between running XPress within Mac OS Xs Classic environment, switching to the competing Adobe InDesign package, or toughing it out and delaying their equipment purchases until a Mac OS X-native XPress arrives (apparently sometime in 2003).
Make Room for Marklar
Make Room for Marklar?
Finally, I want to touch on the latest flurry of reports about Apples sub rosa Mac OS X-on-x86 efforts, a longstanding project to which we first applied a code name (Marklar) and a project size (somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 software engineers, some of them transferred from Apples receding Mac OS 9 development efforts).
Friends, Mac fans, chip champions, lend me your ears: I come not to stir up Marklar rumors, but to frame them.
When we first reported on this project, which reportedly hearkens back to the earliest days of Apples acquisition of NeXT Software Inc. and its Unix-based OpenStep OS, we couched it as primarily a backup plan that offered Apple insurance in case something went terribly wrong with the PowerPC architecture underlying current Macs and (most immediately) as a tool for negotiating with PowerPC developers IBM and Motorola.
Now, recent reports have made the rounds to the effect that Apple may have something more substantial in mind for Marklar. Most recently, my very clever and well-informed colleague Ian Betteridge of MacUser UK has offered up some confirmation of an anonymous letter (posted to the MacRumors site and elsewhere) that asserts Apple is contemplating offering a shrink-wrapped x86 version of its client OS to capitalize on expected user dissatisfaction with Microsofts Palladium security moves.
Meanwhile, Ive also heard rumblings that Apple has shown off Marklar to a number of server hardware manufacturers, including Hewlett-Packard.
Whats going on here? I happen to believe that Apple is indeed dipping a toe here and there into the waters of PC compatibility. I also believe (like most Mac observers) that there would be tremendous hurdles to any such effort, client or server.
As has been said many times before, Apple is primarily a hardware company; thats where the revenues are, and the company is not about to gut its core business on the slim chance that it can win significant OS share from disaffected Microsoft customers.
While a server play would mean the company could charge more per seat and avoid blowing a gaping hole in its 25-year-old commitment to vertical integration of client hardware and software, it would also run the very real risk of alienating IBM (apparently a key architect of its forthcoming 64-bit platform), not to mention driving a stake through its own nascent Xserve server efforts.
My theory? Apple, like any smart technology company in these troubled times, is working very hard to expand its vision—to evaluate all possible scenarios in case one of them contains the germ of a business model that will carry it through the coming decades. To evaluate something as radical as a multiplatform Mac OS, Apple has had to ease up on its traditional veil of secrecy and afford more vendors and customers a peek.
While that gambit carries the risk that Mac watchers will misinterpret dialectic as product strategy, Im encouraged that Apple seems prepared to re-examine both its strategy and its tactics to ensure its continued relevance during the current tech shakeup and beyond.