OS News

21 Sept 1997

Forget Clones: Apple's Future is Rhapsody and Network Computers

By David Adams

Many believe that with the removal of this competition from the Mac OS marketplace, Apple will not be prompted to innovate in order to compete  
A highly powerful and scalable operating system like Rhapsody mated to inexpensive and easy to use Network Computers might just be the answer  
The Mac OS will appropriate its technologies until Apple once again has only one core OS  
NCs are still just a gleam in Larry Ellison's eye, and the Apple logo could take it to the next level  

For those of you who've been locked in a cave for the past three weeks, Apple, likely at Steve Jobs' urging, has ended cloning as we know it. While some makers of Mac clones, most namely Umax, may still be producing, Power Computing, Motorola, and IBM have abandoned future cloning plans. The CHRP platform, which would use more industry standard components, allowing for a freer, less expensive Mac OS machine, will not be licensed. This is being perceived as a huge blow to the macintosh faithful, who have hung on as Apple's marketshare has dwindled.

Many believe that with the removal of this competition from the Mac OS marketplace, Apple will not be prompted to innovate in order to compete, and certainly prices will be higher than in an open marketplace. Despite official pronouncements from Apple insisting that cloners were preventing Apple from returning to profitability, the Mac faithful remain skeptical. Well call me a heretic, but I don't care. The Mac is gone. Rhapsody and NCs are the future. It's not worth fighting about it any more.

I'm writing this now on my Mac, which I love, which I will continue to use. But as soon as Rhapsody becomes usable, the Mac OS will go the way of all other technologies that I loved and appreciated in their time, but which have now become obsolete, like my Colecovision, my Betamax, and my stalwart Sony Walkman. Even the emotion-charged licencing issue is fast becoming a moot point - Apple has realized that cloning Power PC hardware is not going to expand its OS market share. Only by allowing people to load an Apple OS onto their existing Intel-based hardware will the market share be able to be expanded. Apple can continue to brand its hardware as a superior alternative to dirt cheap Intel boxes.

The only alarming part of this strategy is that there doesn't seem to be one. With all the confusion and changing leadership at Apple, any strategy that once existed has long since been reevaluated, reversed, or dumped. I'm certain that the new Apple leadership has a strategy, but it is not yet in sync with the previous company strategy, and has certainly not been made publicly known. So as tidbits seem to make themselves knows, rumors fly. One rumor that has stirred up a lot of controversy is a possible push toward Network Computers.

Here at the office I work at, there are 25 people, four or five of whom actually need fully functional computers. We have a whole team of programmers who spend most of their day connected to remote UNIX servers via telnet. We have salespeople who need email, a web browser, and little else. This is true all over the business world. People are using hard-to-administer Win95 PCs or expensive Macs to send email and access intra-office databases. It doesn't make any sense that all that hardware be wasted. If we could have an easy to use, easy to administer Apple Network Computer running an NC version of Mac OS or Newton OS, that would make me happy. It would save my company lots of money.

Likewise, The Mac OS is not powerful or robust enough for those people who most need it - professionals in the graphic arts, music, and video fields. It's still the best they can get for the money, but its time has come. Most of the Macintosh power users will need to switch to Rhapsody as soon as it is viable. Most corporate Mac users will be better served by Rhapsody Servers linked to multiple, inexpensive Network Computers. Home and school users will still want the Mac OS, but those markets will continue to decline as Apple's market share shrinks. Professionals and businesses are the only ones that can save the platform - and this new Rhapsody/NC idea could really do it.

Steve Jobs has said that Apple has two primary assets - its brand name and the Mac OS. This idea has prompted some to doubt his commitment to the Rhapsody project. The latest murmurings out of Cupertino point at a much stronger Mac OS. The upcoming "Allegro" release will be built on the Mach microkernel (like Rhapsody) and the next Mac OS will have certain elements of the powerful HFS plus file system. I suspect that if Steve got his way, the Rhapsody project will be gradually absorbed by the Mac OS. While Rhapsody continues to be developed, the Mac OS will appropriate its technologies until Apple once again has only one core OS. This makes sense from a business perspective. The piecemeal multi-OS strategy like Microsoft has creates confusion among users and headaches for developers and system administrators.

On the other hand, traditional Macintosh users have radically different needs. Visual arts professionals love the Mac's power - its speed, color management and multimedia support, and easy support for peripherals and multiple monitors. School and home users love its ease of use and friendly interface, along with true plug and play. Perhaps the best way to meet these seemingly conflicting needs for power and ease of use is with a multiple OS strategy - or with one OS that is both easy to use and highly scalable, that is, with functionality that can be expanded according to the user's needs. On the other hand, a highly powerful and scalable operating system like Rhapsody (or a Mac/Rhapsody hybrid) mated to inexpensive and easy to use Network Computers might just be the answer.

Remember that Rhapsody has one feature that makes it highly conducive to the NC paradigm: a true multi user environment. Users can log into the machine and they will see their own desktop and whatever portion of the files that they have access to. Just like UNIX-based mainframes of long ago, this functionality makes the idea of remote terminals workable.

It has been suggested over he years that the Apple brand name is so strong that an apple logo could be pasted onto a toaster and it would sell like gangbusters. Well toasters are a proven technology, but NCs are still just a gleam in Larry Ellison's eye, and the Apple logo could take it to the next level. Even those people who think of Apple as an ongoing joke recognize that its brand represents high quality. Sun's Java has promise, and it has kept its buzzword status for a tremendously long time, but its usefulness has not proven itself yet and the implementations of Java that most of us have seen - on the internet - have not been particularly impressive. Sun's Java-based NCs are just being released, but they may not have what it takes.

Apple shouldn't bet the farm on any of its existing technologies: the Mac OS, Rhapsody, or NCs. It also shouldn't squander its only viable resource, the loyal Mac users. Apple has a responsibility to keep its users informed and happy more than perhaps any other company in the world. Without support from the faithful, Apple is going nowhere, so it should put together a clear strategy soon and take feedback from the users. That's a good way of measuring the future success of any technology,and it will help stem the abandonment of the Mac platform.

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