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Aug 98 Viewpoint

Volume Number: 14 (1998)
Issue Number: 8
Column Tag: Viewpoint

August 1998 Viewpoint

by Nicholas C. "nick.c" DeMello,

Each year in June, two hundred Mac programmers converge on a single hotel in Dearborn Michigan for four days of intense coding, coffee drinking, and discussion. We call it MacHack.

The World Wide Developer Conference is Apple's show, where Apple presents their new technologies and opens a dialog with developers. The Macworld conventions are where vendors show us their new software and similarly touch base with their users. But, MacHack is something different. Suits are not worn, and no one has a briefcase. This is strictly a T-shirt and daypack crowd, and no one is trying to broadcast a message. Instead, it's simply one long party where Mac programmers the world over gather to share their opinions, experiences, and simply enjoy some time with their peers.

MacHack started twelve years ago when the University of Michigan hosted a gathering of Macintosh programmers. That was the first and last MacHack hosted by U of M. Ever since, MacHack has been run by an independent management company and organized by a committee of volunteers from the programming community.

The 1998 keynote speaker was Chris Espinosa -- Apple employee number eight (and once a MacTech columnist). Hired as the eighth employee of Apple, and then working in just about every Apple department, Chris has the longest uninterrupted tenure with Apple on record. At least, until recently. It seems that when Apple acquires another company, their policy is to award its employees seniority based on their start date at the acquired company. So, when Apple acquired NeXT, all the NeXT folks were recorded on the Apple books as having started work at Apple on the dates they began with NeXT. That means, (according to Chris) the books say Steve Jobs never left Apple. That's just one of the stories we were treated to as Chris walked us through the history of Apple, from the perspective of someone who literally grew up inside the company.

MacHack is scheduled one month after WWDC. After four weeks of digesting Apple's newest strategies most programmers have some opinions, questions, and feedback on what was presented at WWDC. That makes the Apple MacHackers targets for a lot of questions and feedback. For example, Tim Holmes, Pete Gontier, and Andy Bachorski ended up in the middle of packs of folks trying to make sense out of Carbon, the Mac OS X schedule, and all the new technologies we're looking forward to in Allegro. Jordan Dea-Mattson was the first Apple employee to experience this phenomena way back at MacHack II, so he scheduled an impromptu Q&A session back then to try and field as many questions as possible. The forum was a huge success (running four hours) with folks asking Jordan about the various decisions and policies made by Apple "Why did you do .....?". Because Jordan was the only Apple representative,. everything that didn't work was, de facto, his fault. Ever since then, Apple has sent one or more Jordan-stand-ins to host an Apple feedback session (commonly referred to as the "Thank Apple Session" :-).

This year, Apple sent their VP of Software Development, Steven Glass, to host the session, and he did a great job of fielding what questions he could and taking the rest of the feedback home with him. As always, it was a great opportunity for developers to share their concerns on Apple's directions and decisions with the folks driving the bus (as well as listing the things that we need to blame Jordan for this year :-).

Apple supplied computers for the Machine room this year (which Peter N Lewis, Steve Sisak, and others put together and maintained for us). The machine room is a conference hall outfitted with computers, ethernet connections, compilers, and reference material placed at the disposal of the convention attendees. Lot's of folks were toting laptops (even a few of the extremely kool new PB G3's were around), but many of us don't have the resources to bring our own development environments with us -- and programmers need to program. Or, to be more precise: they need to hack.

Hacks abound at MacHack. You can't put this many talented programmers in one place and not expect them to show off their wizardry. Some of the best hacks included Andy Bachorski and Nat McCully's MacsBug extension "BrickPoint" that let's you play BreakOut in the debugger. Ed Wynne and Matt Slot wrote a Hack that runs screen savers on your desktop (under your icons and windows). Marcus Jager and Quinn "The Eskimo!" connected two machines by a serial cable and accessed the Open Firmware bootstrap compiler on one from the other. They wrote a version of Pong that runs on a Mac before it boots up. All these hacks are entered into a contest at the end of the show (hosted by the MacHax group and run by Greg Marriot and Scott Boyd) that is the highlight of MacHack. This years winner was the asciiMac by Alexandra Ellwood and Miro Jurisic, which caused a Macintosh to render all it's graphics in colored ASCII characters -- in real time!

But MacHack isn't just for the wizards among us -- it's also a chance for new programmers to tap into the powerful minds and rich history of the Mac programming community. For example, Cal Simone (my personal AppleScript Guru) hosted a wonderful session exclusively for the youngest among us: "Programming for Kids". No one who attended that session was even born when MacHack I took place, but the kids loved it. Having never programmed before, the kids were fascinated by Cal's patient and step by step introduction. The half hour session turned into a 4 hour learning experience. All the kids at the session entered hacks in the juniors competition, and my guess is that these will be the future wizards of our platform.

The Mac programming community is diffuse. We need to come together periodically to share experiences and ideas, and that's really what MacHack is really about. It's a a gathering and a kind of family reunion. If you haven't been to a Hack yet, take a look at and think about making your reservation for next year. See you there.


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