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Mar 99 Viewpoint

Volume Number: 15 (1999)
Issue Number: 3
Column Tag: Viewpoint

Sep 98 Viewpoint

by Nicholas C. "nick.c" DeMello,

Plays Well with Others

My mother told me that the secret to getting ahead in life is being flexible and learning how to get along well with others. Frankly, you can often loose more by insisting on having things your way, than you gain by doing something the "right" way. I think Apple has taken this wisdom to heart last year and has learned to pick their fights very carefully. Today's Mac definitely plays better with others, and that may just translate into a larger market share in the coming year.

The Macintosh is a wonderful and unique instrument that offers so many powerful features and is so easy to use and fun to explore that one has to wonder why everyone doesn't have one on their desk. Well, the reason often comes down to compatibility. Macs are great, but replacing my hard drive costs twice as much as it should, it can be easier to find an honest politician than a really great joystick, and you can't get good games for it for love or money. Well at least that used to be true. It simply didn't make good business sense for third parties to address those markets.

Apple's adoption of IDE hard drives may have been the first sign. Buying a Macintosh computer suddenly became a lot more cost effective (by hundreds of dollars on the hard drive alone) and Mac users now have access to expansion options that simply weren't available before - at any price. I still remember turning over every stone I could to try and find a 800 mb SCSI hard disk for my Duo, when my buddy with the ThinkPad could pick up a 2 gb IDE HD at the corner computer store - cheaper. Adopting IDE has made the Mac a more useful tool for many of us and therefore an easier choice for first time buyers. Adopting USB was an even better move.

Over the years, many vendors have made wonderful peripherals for the Macintosh, but let's not kid ourselves. You could walk into any computer store and see aisles of joysticks, keyboards, specialty mice, and other input devices. It was always a lot of fun exploring these aisles... until you realized that the Mac section was over there (that bottom shelf with two mice and one Joystick). For most vendors, it just didn't pay to build an entirely separate piece of hardware for the Mac, the market was too small. But that lack of choice also kept the market from growing, creating a vicious cycle that Apple has tried very hard to fight against for over a decade.

Well, it seems Apple has given up. Or, more accurately, realized that there are some battles that it is simply foolish to fight - especially when those same resources can better be applied elsewhere. Why not tap into the huge reservoir of peripheral vendors that happen to be making tools for the PC and make it easy and profitable for them to sell to the Apple market as well? With the emergence of the USB standard it was perfect time to do so, and now I can get a great Joystick for my iMac. It's no longer a hard sell to convince a vendor to support the Macintosh, instead it's a no brainer for them to increase their market share by simply creating a Mac OS driver for the exact same hardware they're already selling to PC customers. It now makes good business sense to support the Macintosh.

Then there's OpenGL. If you're not familiar with OpenGL, that's not too surprising. It hasn't been very popular with Mac programmers over the years - it's just the rest of the computer world that's been relying on it. OpenGL is a graphics library that, since 1992, has been the de facto standard for 3D Graphics programming. The OpenGL engine supports the easy and platform independent generation and manipulation of detailed 3D constructs as well as advanced rendering options like reflections, refraction, and transparency. This full ray tracing engine has been incorporated into most modern operating systems. Because you could count on OpenGL being available in every installation of Windows 98, you only had to write a fraction of the code that you needed to to create the same game for the Mac. At Macworld San Francisco, Apple has finally announced that OpenGL will be implemented in the next release of the Mac OS 8.x and will be integrated into Mac OS X as well.

So what does this mean to game programmers? It means exactly what USB meant to peripheral manufacturers: all those wonderful 3D games out there, the ones based on OpenGL game engines can now be ported to the Mac with very little work. It means that the Mac can take the best that Windows has to offer and make it our own with very little effort.

While many Macworld attendees were off toasting OpenGL, those who weren't programmers were focused on another announcement. Connectix, those wonderful folks who brought us Virtual PC, announced the Virtual Game Station - a Sony PlayStation emulator for the Mac. After all, if the Macintosh is going after computer gamers just trying to match the Windows offering isn't really setting much of a challenge for ourselves. Sony is the king of play time.

With Apple promotions that bundle Virtual PC with new Macs and Connectix selling the Virtual Game Station at an extremely attractive price, the Macintosh is now the only system on which you can play just about any game made. There may be a new king in town.

Steve Jobs doesn't need any back patting from me. He's a shrewd businessman who understands the computer market better than I ever will. Never the less, I want to tip my hat here. Apple has created a new line of computers that offer tremendous speed, powerful graphics, easy expandability, and an increasingly stable and reliable feature rich operating system. But I think we may just come to see that the real strokes of genius in the resurgence of the Macintosh lie in the quieter moves Apple has made to set the stage for a growth in market share. Beyond candy colored boxes and monstrously powerful CPU's, Apple's subtler decisions with regard to standards and emulation allow the platform to effortlessly tap into the tremendous third party hardware support of the Intel PC, the army of game programmers relying on OpenGL, and the wealth of existing games on Windows and PlayStation platforms. This just may mean the difference between a reinvigorated Mac platform reclaiming our comfortable niche in the computer industry, or expanding to become something larger.


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