All systems go as Apple looks to the future

Roger Ridey reports on Apple's strategy to claw back market share with a new operating system
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In a speech that was part Hollywood film premiere and part hi- tech pep rally, Gil Amelio, Apple Computer's CEO, unveiled a long-overdue strategy for replacing the Macintosh operating system last week.

Making his first appearance at the Macworld Expo trade show since taking the helm at Apple last year, Amelio announced a twin-track "roadmap" that will see the current Macintosh System 7 upgraded on a regular basis, alongside the release of a new operating system, code-named "Rhapsody".

Amelio, speaking only a day after Apple's share price plunged 18 per cent on Wall Street, also sought to reassure the tens of thousands of software developers and Mac fanatics gathered in San Francisco that the company's future was secure and a return to profitability was expected by the summer.

"We're pointed very definitely at a comeback," he said. "There may be a few bumps along the way, but I don't want that to shake your confidence. It's not going to shake ours."

Apple's problems - its share of the worldwide personal computer market has fallen to around 5 per cent - owe much to the fact that the Mac OS has become outdated and is prone to crashing. What's more, the graphical user interface that made it unique and so easy to operate has been matched by Microsoft's Windows OS. Apple suffered a further setback last summer when efforts to develop a new OS, code-named Copland, collapsed. Now Apple is banking on Rhapsody being able to resurrect the company's flagging fortunes.

Rhapsody will be developed by combining the upgraded Macintosh System 7 with the OpenStep operating system developed by Apple co-founder Steve Jobs' NeXT Software company, which was bought by Apple at the end of last month. Jobs, who rejoins the company he left in 1985 as a consultant, received a tumultuous ovation when he came on stage. "We've got to get the spark back," he told the crowd. "We're going to provide relevant, compelling solutions that customers can only get from Apple." He then proceeded to dazzle them with a demonstration of OpenStep's powerful multi-tasking capabilities.

Amelio's speech was peppered with demonstrations of Mac technology and appearances by celebrities ranging from Jeff Goldblum, the actor who used a Macintosh PowerBook to save the world in the film Independence Day, to Peter Gabriel, who wowed the 4,000-strong audience with a demonstration of his new CD-Rom, Eve.

Amelio also introduced several industry heavyweights, from Netscape, Sun Microsystems, Marimba and even arch-rival Microsoft, all of whom stated their support for Apple and the Macintosh platform. Microsoft even announced plans to set up a 100-person team to develop software applications for the Mac.

The biggest cheers came when Apple's other co-founder, Steve Wozniak, joined Jobs on stage. The two Steves, who together founded Apple 20 years ago and in the process revolutionised the personal computer industry, were both presented with 20th Anniversary Macintoshes, Apple's radically designed new computer-cum-home entertainment centre that's priced at a mere $9,000.

With Amelio's speech being long on style and short on substance, it was left to Ellen Hancock, Apple's chief technology officer, to provide the hard facts about the OS strategy. In a briefing after the keynote, she said that Apple will upgrade the System 7 OS every six months for at least the next several years. The first of these upgrades, System 7.6, will be released later this month. Another upgrade, scheduled for July, will include some of the key features of the aborted Copland project.

At the same time, Apple will start to release the Rhapsody OS. A "developer release" will be available in July so that software developers can begin writing Rhapsody programs. By the end of the year, Apple plans a "premier release" that will run programs written for Rhapsody but will not be fully compatible with existing Mac applications. A "unified release" that will run current System 7 programs is planned for the middle of 1998.

Rhapsody will use the PowerPC microprocessor introduced in 1994 but won't run on machines powered by the older 68000 microprocessors. Following the "unified" release, Apple is considering selling Macs with both System 7 and Rhapsody, leaving users free to decide which operating system they prefer to use.

As for the developers exhibiting their products at Macworld, they for the most part seemed satisfied that Apple had finally come up with an OS strategy, and they were hoping for a repeat of the smooth transition the company made from the 68000 to the PowerPC chip. With Apple's market share in decline, software developers face a tough choice: stay with a platform they believe to be superior to Windows, or jump ship and start writing their programs for a much larger market. Apple's future depends on keeping them on board