Rhapsody in blue (or yellow)

The new Mac operating system will give software developers a colourful choice.

Apple Computer has had some rough times recently, but there's just a chance that there may be light at the end of the tunnel. At its recent worldwide developers conference, Apple gave the first public demonstrations of Rhapsody, the new operating system that it hopes to release next year.

Rhapsody is crucial to Apple's future. The company spent several years developing a new operating system called Copland, which was intended to replace the Mac OS, the operating system used in its current Macintosh computers. But Copland fell apart last year and since then Apple has suffered huge losses, falling sales and two major management restructures.

The first public viewing of Rhapsody was therefore an important occasion, giving software developers the opportunity to decide whether or not they are going to write new software for it. And the verdict, for the most part, was favourable. Rhapsody is still far from complete, but the software developers attending the conference seem to think that Apple is heading in the right direction.

One of the key features of Rhapsody is that it contains two components called the Blue and Yellow Boxes. The Blue Box will allow users to run programs that were written for the current Mac OS, while the Yellow Box will run new programs written especially for Rhapsody. It takes a lot of time and money for software developers to produce new versions of their programs, but Rhapsody's Blue Box should reassure them that they can continue to sell their existing software while they work on producing new versions for the Yellow Box part of Rhapsody.

And, in a further attempt to appeal to software developers, Apple also announced that it would be producing versions of Rhapsody and the Yellow Box that would run on IBM-compatible PCs. There will be a complete version of the Rhapsody OS that will run on PCs as an alternative to Windows. However, Apple will also separate out the Yellow Box component and release it as a kind of add-on program that can be used in conjunction with Windows. Any program written for the Yellow Box will, in theory, be able to run on both Macs and PCs. At the moment, software companies have to spend a lot of time developing separate Mac and PC versions of their programs. But, if the Yellow Box works, they will now be able to write a single version of a program for the Yellow Box and that program will then be able to run on both Macs and PCs without any alteration.

That will save software companies time and money and will be a powerful incentive for them to develop software for Rhapsody. The question, of course, is whether or not the Yellow Box will actually work. Sources inside Apple say that work on Rhapsody is going well and is actually running ahead of schedule. However, it will still be several months before Apple is ready to release it to developers, and it will probably be a year before the final version goes on sale to the public.

In the meantime, the next episode in the Apple soap opera will be in July, when it releases a new version of the current Mac OS that uses some of the features originally developed for Copland. Apple's hope is that this will boost sales and buy it some breathing space until it is ready to hand Rhapsody over to developers in three or four months' time.

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