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20060403,00


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Code on ice.

It's really a shame, what's happened to OS X, but there doesn't seem to be a lot anyone can do about it. The Bearded One sits atop it all and it is HIS company and it belongs to no one else and this is the way things are going to be and that's just that.

And the sudden - or at least unexpected - departure of NeXT's (and Apple's) two most major players of all time exactly one day before Apple's 30th anniversary has to be some kind of statement - of discontent, of not wanting to pursue the matter any longer. Or the hypocrisy.

The Steve Jobs at NeXT might not be the Steve Jobs at Apple.

Apple were underway in 1996 - and early 1997 - towards keeping NeXTSTEP platform independent and licensing it to everyone, just as NeXT had done before them. Apple had already acquired both Jon Rubinstein and Avie Tevanian - who together quit last Friday 31 March - and Steve Jobs wasn't yet with the company again. That was to be another seven or eight months. Apple paid over $400 million for NeXTSTEP and were now taking in the NeXT engineers - but Steve Jobs still wasn't welcome.

That changed rapidly. The Apple board were worried. Finances were at an all-time low. Market share had dropped to 8% from a previous high of 20%. Several financial authorities saw Apple only a few months away from total Chapter 11.

Gradually they built liquidity back up again, worked harder to get a modicum of quality out the door, won back some old disgruntled customers, and planned for the future.

That future involved getting the hardware division to come out with the best personal computer on the market - a box that could run anything from Windows to Unix. And it involved getting Rhapsody ready to run on any hardware, just as NeXTSTEP had done before it. And most of the pieces of the puzzle were already in place.

Jon Rubinstein had headed hardware for NeXT. Not many boxes were sold, but no one would ever fault them on quality. Today they're collectors items and bring in huge prices, far exceeding anything people ordinarily pay for a modern computer.

And between 1993 and 1995 NeXTSTEP was ported to several CPU platforms with several different 'operating systems' running under the bonnet. And NeXT and Sun together came out with the OPENSTEP spec which is still useable today.

But Steve Jobs never liked to share. He grabbed onto Jean-Marie Hullot and SOS Interface with iron claws and he did the same with Brad Box and Objective-C. Only in 1995 did Brad Cox let go of one of the few 'patented' programming languages - and he sold it to none other than Steve Jobs.

Steve Jobs walked back into Cupertino running a space age operating system on an Intel laptop. His was an operating system that would run on Windows NT, Solaris, HP/UX - you name it. It would run on Sparc, Intel, PowerPC - and probably every other processor in the world given time. And before he came back - when Apple got NeXTSTEP but still didn't have to contend with Steve Jobs - the plan was to keep going.

The irony is that today Apple are moving to Intel, hackers are trying to get Windows working on the new MacIntels, other hackers are trying to get OS X to work on ordinary Wintel machines - and Apple are fighting them like silly fools, tooth and claw, placing limericks in code, implanting Infineon chips, doing what-not and everything feasible and ludicrous both to stop this from happening - and less than ten years ago, right before Steve Jobs ousted the then CEO of Apple to take over again himself - this was not something they fought: this was the plan.

Ten years ago this is what Apple wanted to do. This was their business plan: make the best hardware found anywhere and let even Windows run on it. And make the best operating system anywhere and make it run on any hardware. This was the plan.

Back then Apple were in dire straits because they only had 8% of the market. Today when Steve Jobs is again the darling of the media they don't have half that.

Oh sure, Steve Jobs gets his picture on the cover of Time Magazine again. And he holds his seances at Macworld. And he bought a company in his off years that suddenly started turning out fabulously successful animated motion pictures. And today he's the biggest shareholder of Disney. Fabulous stuff.

But the operating system is for shit and only getting worse. And it's more proprietary than ever. And if something really were going to change, we'd have seen it by now. And Apple don't want independent software houses anyway. They've always treated them like shit and they're getting back into that again. They destroyed Dan Wood; they destroyed Arlo Rose and Perry Clark; and if anyone dared come along with another killer app - anyone stupid enough - they'd devour them in no time flat too.

Apple can't tolerate third party software - that's how closed in they are. Compare with the 'fleet' for NeXTSTEP - which admittedly was only burgeoning back then. Or compare with the hundreds of thousands (millions) of apps for Windows. What makes a platform thrive? What makes it die?

IBM thought they knew in the beginning of the 1980s. They saw the CP/M market as a complete contradiction to the way they'd been doing business all along and they're to be given credit for effecting such a total about face when introducing their PC. The CP/M market was a standard: a huge arena of hardware vendors and a huge arena of software vendors. And everything ran on everything else and everything supported everything else.

NeXTSTEP/OPENSTEP was built the same way too. Steve Johnson made the pccm and found that 94% of Unix code was platform independent. History was being made.

And off in a corner of the world known as Cupertino a few unknown and unproven engineers were putting together a small unconnected box that said 'hello'.

But that tiny beige box was being built according to a marketing spec. Imagine if you will what would have happened to Unix - what would happen to the Internet today - if every ten minutes some marketing exec came in to ken and dmr and started going on about feature this and feature that - and how insanely great it was.

Ken and Dennis were accosted by IBM and didn't budge. IBM, after years of denial, finally started trying to adopt their technology but couldn't get their C compiler working. The 'extern' keyword was screwing them up. They wrote to Ken and Dennis - they pressured them - to change the language specification. To at least bend it a bit. So Big Blue could run C too.

But Ken and Dennis didn't budge. It was a question of definitions, they said. Our way of doing things is right. IBM's is wrong.

Guess who gave in. And it wasn't Ken and Dennis. And the whole world has them to thank for what we have today.

You don't design an operating system with marketing suits. Ken and Dennis sketched their system for a long time before getting down to it. They focused on clean design and on all the good stuff that makes a system durable over time - and of all the people in the world uniquely qualified to know the score in these matters, they were obviously some of the best if not the absolute best of them all.

After all, this is all they did, day in and day out, day in and day out.

And they gave us Unix. And Unix gave us Berkeley sockets. And Berkeley sockets gave us the Internet.

And Unix gave us NeXTSTEP. And NeXTSTEP gave us the World Wide Web. And here we are today on that web, communicating in a way we could never have thought possible. And nearly 70% of all web servers - save those silly few who still run Microsoft's IIS - are Unix machines. And an increasing number of desktops are Unix machines as well. And systems as remote as Windows borrow heavily from Unix without coming out and admitting it.

And the US finally gave Ken and Dennis the Technology Medal. In 1999. And if there were ever a Nobel Prize in computer science, its first laureates would undoubtedly be these two. No two engineers have ever contributed as much to the betterment of mankind in their field as they have. Their influence is felt everywhere.

But Ken and Dennis never had to listen to suits. Or users with quirky ideas. They didn't have to be worn down by incessant ranting and howling. They lived in a sandbox, as Dennis once put it, and that was what they were paid to do. And they came up with things that have changed all our lives for the better.

And their Unix is rock solid not because they thought obsessively of security when they designed it but because they thought of purity - of clean design. Of not mixing metaphors. Tangling code from one place in another. Making programs do one thing and do them well. Working off telex terminals, they learned the lessons of efficiency and precision. They learned how to get programs to interact and cooperate. They invented piping. They invented a whole lot. And their system gets only stronger not because security was an overriding consideration when it was first designed but because cleanliness in design - no frills, no nonsense - was.

As has been said all along: Unix is not so much an operating system as a way of thinking. Unix and C ushered in a whole new school of thought in programming - what Ken's and Dennis' colleague Brian Kernighan called the 'Software Tools' school of thought. And he wrote a whole book series on it. He revamped BASIC, he revamped Pascal (but hated every minute of it) - he even revamped FORTRAN, creating Ratfor and putting this magnificent preprocessor for context free parsing in the public domain.

All this happened because two guys didn't give in. Because they didn't have suits hovering over them telling them to do this do that - because they could build this system they wanted to build exactly as they wanted - exactly as they knew best.

Features always come from the marketing department. Or whiny end users. Features never work. There is no OS X user today who would trade security for features, and yet this is exactly what has happened over the past four to five years.

There is no OS X user who wouldn't secretly like to see the platform proliferate and eat up the plurality if not the absolute majority of the market. But that's not going to happen.

Outsiders looking at Apple ten years ago said Apple were their own worst enemy. That is certainly true even today, but that enemy today has an ally more powerful than ever before: the Mac zealots. They too are their own worst enemy, and together they seem totally bent on destruction.

There is nothing that will save OS X. Not at this impasse. There is nothing that will save Cocoa. Or Objective-C. Despite their once being the far and away best in their field anywhere. But the atmosphere at NeXT was worlds apart from the atmosphere at the Hotel Cupertino. And the products NeXT came out with were worlds apart too. They were better. By a mile far better.

It's already been shown - proven even - that the closed source model doesn't work. It's further been demonstrated that the closed source model is dangerous - for the end user to use. We've seen how Apple have quietly ignored gaping security holes for years on end, playing the 'security through obscurity' game like fools, banking on no one peeking into their twitty world and seeing how they left their customers in the lurch. And interest even today is not significant enough to warrant more research by the black hats of the world.

It's disheartening to realise, after all these years of proselytising full disclosure and the folly of security through obscurity, that one's OS vendor is lazily dependent on the latter and secretly eschewing the former. Talk about hypocrisy.

Hypocrisy: that's a loaded word. It applies, for example, when you try to explain to a friend why you went behind his back and broke a solemn deal and ran all your Apple stock into the ground just to undermine his position - and explain it by telling him you just got 'depressed' that day and you don't know why you did what you did?

It applies, again only as an example, when you try to convince the guy you just shafted that you did nothing at all, absolutely nothing at all to shaft him when you both know full well you did - and then you round and top it off by telling him he's the person with the highest integrity you've ever met?

That stuff's thinner than a nanometer. Such is hypocrisy.

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