Jan 97 Viewpoint
Volume Number: 13 (1997)
Issue Number: 1
Column Tag: Viewpoint
By Eric Gundrum
To Be or Not To Be
That is the question. Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of our existing technology or adopt an entirely new technology and embrace it as our own.
Apple and Be are reported to have been negotiating a deal for Apple to acquire the BeOS as a quick fix to Apple's delays in shipping MacOS 8 sometime this century. At least, this is what the community has been discussing. Apple has been silent on the issue.
On the other hand, during a recent international Mac developers' conference, Apple's CTO, Ellen Hancock stated that the MacOS will be built by Apple. Is that a bit of "not invented here" creeping through, or has Apple decided the BeOS is not up to the task? I expect we'll hear a more complete answer at the January Expo. Until then, you can decide for yourself with the included BeOS for Macintosh CD.
Everyone is quick to criticize Apple. Reading the many discussions taking place on the net one begins to see that people will complain no matter which way Apple turns. Damned if they do, damned if they don't. Apple can't rely on the developer community to provide a clear direction.
Can We Have Some Engineering, Please?
Call me foolish, but I'm willing to trust Apple on this one, knowing full well that my livelihood is closely tied to the success of the Mac. Frankly, I wonder just how important is it that we get a new OS. Sure, System 7 is getting long in the tooth. Sure, the industry pundits tell us we need preemptive multitasking, protected memory and whatever hot feature comes along next week. ("Will that be MMX, VMX or TriMedia, sir?") Preemptive multitasking has some benefits, but I'm not so sure I want to give up 10% of my CPU to managing the threads, nor do I want Apple to spend precious resources trying to make it work. A few simple OS-level developer tools could go a long way to help us tune our cooperative multi-tasking environment.
The improvement I want more than anything else is reliability. I'm sick of crashes, freezes and just plain bugs that prevent me from getting my work done. Many folks say protected memory will provide that reliability, but there are many things Apple could do with the current OS (not to mention hardware) to improve reliability. Start with redesigning the pieces that are most problematic, but do it one piece at a time, and take advantage of all that the software development community has learned about developing complex systems these past five years.
As a developer, I would love a few more debug versions of the various Mac managers. The debug managers would immediately notify me if I pass an invalid handle or other parameter. How about having those debug managers perform self consistency checks to notice when their data or code is mucked up? This would help us and Apple find and fix many more bugs than protected memory, and we could have it soon.
Despite the engineers at Apple being some of the smartest people I've ever met, they sometimes suffer a mob mentality. Sometimes they blindly pursue some grandiose idea because they believe they can build a better mouse trap. Rather than trying to redesign the entire world of Macintosh software, I would like Apple to provide some incremental changes that can grow with us. Fix the things that are broken, give developers OS-level tools to write better software, and enforce some better engineering practices inside Apple to ensure that what Apple creates does not have to rely exclusively on the QA group to find all of the bugs.
User Group Shake-out
One of my most enjoyable activities is joining a group of Macintosh programmers to talk tech for a few hours. Living in the San Francisco Bay Area I have the benefit of several formal and informal groups of Macintosh programmers. Such groups often need careful nurturing in other areas of the world, but the benefits of talking through difficult programming problems and of learning how others are using new technologies are still there.
A few user groups have been having some tough times these past few months, and it doesn't seem to be Apple-related. Macintosh users often take user groups for granted. We created many in the early years of Macintosh to help us band together and support each other against the strong forces of DOS. User groups are a great place to learn what isn't in the manuals, as well as how to program the Mac when there are more volumes of Inside Macintosh than one can read in a year. Windows users have had a far greater need for the support of user groups, but they never seem to develop that strength of community.
Now several user groups are in serious trouble. (User groups are better known for things other than being well run businesses.) Boston Computer Society (BCS), once the largest user group in the world, catered to many computing platforms from CP/M to Macintosh. Earlier this year they uncovered serious financial mismanagement leading to their permanently closing their doors. Some recent reports indicate at least one other large, metropolitan user group is traveling the same path. Hopefully their members have caught it in time.
Many folks working in the Macintosh industry got much of their training helping others in user groups. Many companies got their best user feedback from user group audiences. Now it is time to give a little back. Look into your local user group and see how they are doing. Make sure they are not falling apart while no one pays attention and see how you might help them a bit. You might find that they help you even more.