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The Mac reborn: System 7.0.

Like a lot of people, we've suspected that NeXT founder Steve Jobs is pretty much on target when he argues that the macintosh is beginning to display symptoms of senility. Apple's engineers keep finding new ways to fine tune their basic engine, but lately we haven't seen much evidence of creative momentum or vision from cupertino. In fact, the last really interesting development in the mac environment was probably Hypercard-which Apple introduced almost two years ago.

Now, however, Apple has forced us to rethink Jobs' decline-and-fall scenario. It turns out that the Mac isn't as moribund as we thought: Behind the scenes, Apple has quietly put together a major system-level overhaul of the whole Mac architecture. The result--much of which will appear in the next operating system release, System 7.0--bridges the gap between personal computers and workstations, and turns the Mac into a hardware platform that is head-to-head competitive with unix and OS/2based environments.

For once, Apple is being remarkably candid about the details of its internal development programs. Jim Davis, Apple's newly-hired director of system software, has given Apple-watchers (including us) private briefings on system 7.0 and related long-term strategies. And on May 9 some 2,500 Mac developers were given a corporate presentation by Apple that left very few secrets in the closet.

Putting System 7.0 in perspective is a tough job; the sheer mass of detail is almost overwhelming. Davis, a feisty ex-Sun executive who is clearly fired up about the new mac architecture, insists "we're on the cusp of a major change in software"--but even he has trouble defining exactly what kind of ripple effect System 7.0 will have.

Moreover (as Apple's less-successful products occasionally remind us), great concepts are only as good as their implementation. Some of System 7.0 is already finished, but Davis admits that there's a "50-50 chance" that some key pieces won't make the cut when System 7.0 is released next year.

Still, Apple has a knack for inventing--or at least commercializing-concepts that eventually reshape the whole personal computer marketplace. Graphical interfaces, the mouse, desktop publishing, object-oriented programming, multimedia, and a good many other innovations took root first in the mac world, then spread more broadly into the PC mainstream. Our guess is that System 7.0 will have a similar impact on the whole software industry. So the Mac is once again the machine to watch.

Briefly, here are a few of the high points of System 7.0:

* Real multitasking. System 7.0 finally dumps Apple's limited concurrency solutions--desk accessories and MultiFinder--and replaces them with a multitasking enviornment that promises to be sophisticated and flexible. Developers will now be able to work with such features as dynamic data exchange, event-driven linkages between applications, user-created scripting, and network-aware distributed applications support. System 7.0 provides an environment that allows virtually seamless integration among individual applications, says Davis; as a result, he expects that the Mac market will see a shift from big, stand-alone products to smaller modules that let users assemble their own customized environments.

Though Davis doesn't dwell on Apple's rivals in multitasking, System 7.0's multitasking features are obviously a response to OS/2 and, to some degree, Unix. If the schedule slips on 7.0, multitasking features will probably be the cause; Apple has a lot of catch-up work to do here. But there's also an advantage to starting late: The 7.0 design team gets to cherrypick OS/2's best concepts and gets some warning about developmental dead ends. (Since Apple won't have to waste time trying to create software fixes for a "brain-dead" 286 chip, System 7.0 may get to market a good deal faster than OS/2.)

One lesson that Apple has already taken to heart from watching OS/2 is that users won't buy the promise of multitasking if the price of transition to a new environment is too high. Although 7.0 will require 2MB of memory, Davis says his goal is to build an operating system that will run comfortably across the entire range of macintosh models, with true upward compatibility for all old applications. Thus, the transition to 7.0 should be relatively painless, cheap, and rapid.

* A new imaging model. Although Apple and Adobe have turned into polite rivals for control of the high-quality font business, that's really an intramural squabble that doesn't directly impact the Mac's present dominance in publishing and graphics applications. Rather than adopt a generic imaging standard (PostScript), Apple has decided to beef up its own proprietary QuickDraw system by adding such features as 32-bit color, scaled outline fonts, built-in kerning, and broader printer support. Most users won't see much of a difference in the new Quickdraw, but the enhancements will matter a lot to the developers and power users who define leadership in the imaging market. By contrast, Microsoft and IBM have never really understood the importance of advanced publishing and graphics features; even though Windows and Pm will eventually overcome their early limitations as imaging systems, we suspect that

Apple's lead here will be almost impossible to overcome.

* Connectivity. Apple has kept plugging away at the connectivity problem, and later this year the Mac will get a new "Communications Toolbox" for improving links with networks, minis, and mainframes. But Apple is one of the few connectivity vendors that also seems to be addressing human factors issues with a high level of urgency. Davis says that Apple's goal isn't just better "computer to computer" connectivity; instead, he wants to see the Mac become a completely personal gateway to other systems. "it's not enough to put a 3270 window on a Mac screen," he says. "The interaction has to be completely transparent to the user." In the long run, Davis adds, networks of personal computers may become so powerful that virtually all mid-range systems disappear. "I admit to being on the lunatic fringe," he says, "but eventually I see 100 MIPs on the desktop and Crays, with nothing in the middle."

Jim Davis, director of system software, Apple computer, 10500 N. De Anza Blvd., MS 27CC, Cupertino, Calif. 95014; 408/974-0322.
COPYRIGHT 1989 Soft-letter
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Copyright 1989, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Macintosh architecture overhauled
Date:Apr 1, 1989
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