Send for the Clones

1997: My, but we live in interesting times! Apple, consistently the most innovative vendor of personal computers and operating systems, has twice changed CPU platforms (from 6502-based Apple I, II, and III to 680×0-based Lisa and Macintosh, to PowerPC-based Power Macintosh) and is on the verge of introducing a new (to Mac users) operating system rooted in Unix and NeXTstep.

Apple saw unexpected success with the release of Mac OS 8 – two million copies sold in the two months. That makes it the #1 software product of 1997. Steve Jobs, every savvy, has announced that Apple will continue developing the Mac OS, making it more and more like the ill-fated Copland and forthcoming Rhapsody.

Hey, you’ve gotta milk the cash cow for all it’s worth!

Even more interesting, there are rumors that Apple may move the Mac OS from the current microkernel to the same Mach kernel that Rhapsody will use.

Whither Rhapsody?

Both Apple and Be are hoping to create the future OS for Power Macs and Intel-based computers. Be had a head start on the PowerPC platform and may have a better vision, but it simply doesn’t have the resources to become the next great OS. The preview BeOS release is very nice, but it’s essentially an unpolished hack. For instance, at higher video resolutions, it only supports a 60 Hz refresh rate – flicker, flicker. It doesn’t offer a driver for the LaserWriter 16/600 printer that I use. It doesn’t have much software, and the browser doesn’t support frames. Still, tens of thousands are playing with it. It’s an interesting change from the Mac OS.

But Rhapsody is coming along nicely. According to all sources, it is several weeks ahead of schedule. DR1, the first developer release, began shipping in mid-October. The first developer release of Blue Box, the Mac OS environment, arrived in mid-November. I’m confident Apple will have a robust OS ready in January 1998.* And I’m pretty sure Steve Jobs is betting the orchard on it. (For an overview of Rhapsody, read Red Box, Blue Box, Yellow Box.)

* Mac OS X Server 1.0 shipped in March 1999, the OS X Public Beta in September 2000.

Like Be, Apple is doing parallel OS development on both PowerPC and Intel platforms. This has great potential, something Microsoft and IBM missed out on by failing to port Windows NT and OS/2 to the PowerPC. More on that later.*

* Apple continued to develop Intel versions of OS X in parallel with PowerPC versions. In June 2005, Apple announced that it would switch from PowerPC to Intel CPUs within a year, and the first Intel-based Macs shipped in January 2006. Hackers soon figured out how to boot Intel Macs into Windows, something that Apple eventually blessed with its Boot Camp, and virtualization software soon made it possible for users to run a version of Windows (or Linux) alongside Mac OS X. Mac sales soon reached record levels and have continued to grow ever since.

I sincerely hope Rhapsody will be a viable replacement for the familiar Mac OS when it is first released. More than being robust, it must have a compelling list of Rhapsody applications. Apple’s target market should be the graphics market. Unless Photoshop, Quark, PageMaker, Freehand, and Illustrator are immediately available for the new OS, designers will have no reason to switch. These are the people with the horsepower, large hard drives, big screens, and good budgets that Apple, Adobe, Quark, Macromedia, and others need to target first.

There’s a second reason for this, alluded to above. In many dual-platform shops, graphic work is done on Macs while the rest of the company gets by on Windows. The IT department is forced to support two incompatible hardware platforms and incompatible operating systems. (Fortunately, Macs need very little support!)

Imagine that Apple hooks the power users with Rhapsody. They buy it, along with their favorite applications. They can run both Mac OS and Windows software along with Rhapsody applications. Much like a Power Mac with a DOS card, Virtual PC, or SoftWindows, we now have a solid platform for running both of today’s leading operating systems.

Better yet, they run as applications, meaning if the Mac OS or Windows crashes under Rhapsody, only that session bombs. Rhapsody goes right on running.

Expect first month sales of Rhapsody to make the OS 8 release look like old news – if Apple makes sure the crucial graphics applications are ready.

One For All

Give power users a month or two to discover the strengths of Rhapsody, which most of the world will see as a Mac-specific OS. Then Apple blitzes the media: One For All. A single OS, Rhapsody, can run on both Power Macs and Intel boxes. IT departments would have a single OS to support on two different hardware platforms – a big improvement!

Every dual-platform shop would have to seriously consider Rhapsody against Windows 98.

Bill Gates will suddenly get indigestion, realizing his deal with Apple helped set the stage for a viable alternative to Windows on the Intel platform. Then he’ll realize that Office 98 for Rhapsody will make him a good chunk of money – and his $150 million investment in Apple will be worth a lot more when he can sell it.

By mid-1998, Apple could jump from a distant second in the OS market to perhaps 20-30% of new unit sales. Rhapsody will run on Macs, Mac clones, CHRP machines (Apple sanctioned or not!), and Wintel boxes. If Apple handles licensing better than today, we’ll soon see Intel boxes shipping with Rhapsody instead of Windows. Maybe we’ll even see boxes with the Apple logo that say Intel inside.

Frankly, if anyone can take on the Wintel juggernaut, it’s Steve Jobs. He has the ego, power, knowledge, and savvy to steal market share from Microsoft on the platform that Microsoft defined.

I sure hope Jobs and Apple pull it off.