To Be or not to Be?

Cliff Joseph talks to Gil Amelio, Apple's new CEO, about his plans for putting the troubled computer giant back on top
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Apple Computer may be on the road to financial recovery, but it now has another problem to deal with. Its recent losses were primarily due to bad management, and seem to have found a cure in the appointment of a new chief executive, Gil Amelio. The problem it now faces, however, is technological rather than financial, and lies at the heart of its Macintosh computer products.

Apple's great strength has always been its operating system, the Mac OS. This is the software that controls the Macintosh computers and makes them much easier to use than PCs running Microsoft's Windows. But the launch of Windows 95 last year showed that Windows was starting to catch up with the Mac OS.

Apple's answer to Windows 95 was a project known as Copland, a new version of the Mac OS which was intended to restore its technological lead. But Copland was conceived in 1993, and planned for release in 1995. The project is a year late and unlikely to be finished before 1998. The pace of change in the computer industry means that Copland will be out of date by the time it is finished.

Mr Amelio admitted this in a recent visit to the UK. "At this point we have to do something better than Copland - we have to go beyond that."

The answer to Apple's problems could lie with Jean-Louis Gassee. A former president of Apple, Mr Gassee now runs Be Inc, a small company that has its own operating system called the Be OS. This includes many of the features that Apple had planned to include in Copland, and at last month's MacWorld exhibition in Boston, Mr Gassee demonstrated a version of the Be OS that runs on Apple's Power Mac computers.

His demonstration prompted speculation that Apple would license the Be OS, or even mount a complete takeover of Be Inc. Both companies have denied these rumours, but Mr Amelio acknowledges Apple's interest in the Be OS.

"It's inevitable that we'll do something together," he says.

He's not saying, though, what this "something" might be. The problem with the Be OS is that although it will run on Macintosh computers, it won't allow users to run existing Macintosh programs such as wordprocessors or spreadsheets. It will cost software companies a lot of time and money to rewrite their software for the Be OS, and there is a risk that some might not bother and might simply abandon the Macintosh altogether.

One solution would be a "dual-boot" system, which allows the computer to run both the Be OS and the Mac OS. Users would then be able to select the operating system they want when they turn the computer on. This would allow them to keep their existing Mac software and make a gradual transition to the Be OS as new software becomes available.

Software engineers familiar with both systems have also said that it would be possible to create a kind of "virtual" Macintosh within the Be OS that would allow it to run Macintosh software. This would be a more elegant solution than the dual-boot option, but it could take up to a year to make the necessary changes to Be's software.

Whatever it decides to do, Apple needs to act quickly. Mac users are famously loyal to their computers, but even they are now losing confidence in the Copland project. If Apple doesn't clarify its plans for the Mac OS soon, it may find that loyalty has its limits.

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