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Oct 99 Viewpoint

Volume Number: 15 (1999)
Issue Number: 10
Column Tag: Viewpoint

Viewpoint

by Bill von Hagen

For Cross-Platform Standards, the Mac is as Standard as Anybody

This issue's viewpoint is what some might consider heresy - discussing the importance of seeing the Mac an equal partner in "standards". I don't mean this just in terms of this week's hot buzzphrase ("Open Source", anyone?), but rather in terms of time- tested buzzwords such as XML, Java, EDI, and eBusiness.

At first glance, it's odd to see a Macintosh piece whose focus is interoperability and platform-independence. The reason that this is odd is that, as Mac lovers, we're often used to thinking of ourselves as the voice crying out in the wilderness, some sort of hi-tech Mr. Smith in "Mr Smith Goes To Washington." We do this to ourselves by our endless (and justified! - oops) trumpeting of the Mac as the one true platform, but let's face it - that attitude just doesn't cut it in the business world today. To me, the Mac still has clear advantages for most graphics and artistic work, but (to paraphrase) 'the business of America today is eBusiness.' We can design all the web sites, graphics, and other media we want using Macs, but if we want to make the Mac into more than just a niche player, we've got to use it for business and business development - not just for software development to feed the needs of a few million Mac-loving intimates and the occasional convert or new initiates.

The good news is that you can already do this. The tools are already here. You can start now. Today's web environment and the cross-platform thinking it fosters already makes the Mac a viable player. We just have to respin our story a little bit.

To recap the world of eBusiness today in a paragraph or two, Java is a object-oriented language that is compiled so that it can run on any platform with a Java virtual machine. Virtual machines are freely available for almost all hardware platforms, from mainframes (IBM VM), to workstations (almost all flavors of UNIX), to personal computers (Macs, Windows 95, 98, and NT), and even hand-helds (Psion organizers). All of these can run the same platform-independent Java applications, even using a GUI thanks to portable Java GUI libraries such as Swing.

Just as Java is a platform-independent independent way or writing applications, XML is a software-independent way of exchanging data. XML is a markup language that lets you define structured ways of organizing data. The most common use of XML is in defining different types of structured documents and creating documents that conform to them. Businesses have many different types of data that must conform to a specific structure: spreadsheets, databases, and even general-purpose corporate information such as that exchanged via EDI (Electronic Data Interchange) formats. All of these have their own rules for identifying the meaning of different portions of the data that they contain. XML provides a unified structure for expressing all of them.

Together, Java and XML provide a platform-independent, software-independent vision for the future of computing. Anyone can play as long as they can follow the standard rules. Macs have specific advantages in specific fields, but darn it, we can also be as standard as anybody.

Regardless of your age, mind set, and favorite tools, the Mac already has everything you need for XML and Java development. Integrated Development Environments (IDEs) for developing Java applications on the Mac are readily available from vendors such as Metrowerks, Symantec, Smith Resources, and many others. There's a fair amount of Mac XML development software already out there for the Mac, including the HexMac Publishing Tools, the Emile extensible markup editor, Xpublish, bbedit, and many more.

There are also plenty of tools for people like me. Call me a Luddite if you will, but since the early eighties, I've written docs and code in the same tool - a text editor. I love markup languages such as XML because I can still use my favorite editor and produce perfectly formed documents. I can write code in another window at the same time. But enough about me - the point is that the tools are out there, regardless of what you like to use. The skills are out there - a million Mac applications show that we have them. The opportunity is out there.

This isn't suggesting that we stop developing Mac-specific applications. To quote Vladamir Nabakov's Lolita, "Please, don't stop!" The Mac GUI is a wonder of beauty and usability. (Though I will never be able to explain or defend the QuickTime 4 GUI!) There will always be a place for Mac-only applications that take advantage of the Mac OS. I'd frankly expect more of these sorts of applications once Mac OS X is available.

We're not "dumbing down" the Mac, we're wising up ourselves and the business community by nothing more than putting a slightly better spin on the kinds of development you can already do on the Mac. Which is platform-specific things, and standard things. And we can play in the platform-independent, software-independent sandbox as well as anybody.

eBusiness, XML, and Java could be the best things that ever happened to the Mac since PageMaker at the dawn of time. ( which was April, 1984) Some might say that those aren't Macintosh applications or environments per se, but the smart ones among us will be quick to yell "And that's the whole point!" - they're as much Mac applications and environment as they are Windows or UNIX ones. (Spin, spin.) Let's get eBusy.

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