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WEB WATCH: MacOS X-cellent
By Larry O'Brien

The progenitor of the elevator pitches of the dot-com bubble is the Steve Jobs Reality Distortion Field. Jobs has an unparalleled ability to bend time, space and fundamental mechanical realities in order to eliminate all skepticism of the most outrageous pronouncements. At the original unveiling of the NeXT computer, I saw journalists literally run to the phone banks to file reports in a scene straight from a Howard Hawks movie. They feverishly babbled about how great it was—the video e-mail capabilities, the rewritable optical drive, the freedom from the floppy disk legacy…

The most remarkable thing about the Reality Distortion Field is how valuable it has proved. The NeXT never made a dent in the marketplace, but the Distortion Field extended all the way to Switzerland, where Tim Berners-Lee modestly claims to have invented the World Wide Web in order to justify the purchase of one of the machines. (In fact, he’d been working on hypertext systems since 1980.)

While the Reality Distortion Field focused on the interface of the NeXT, the real triumph of the NeXT was NeXTStep Developer, a direct manipulation developer tool that’s only been surpassed (and then only arguably) in the past few years. Berners-Lee says, “It was a great computing environment in general. I could do in a couple of months what would take more like a year on other platforms.”

Jump forward a decade plus a schedule slip or two.

Apple Computer made the first public beta of MacOS X available on Sept. 13, 2000. I bet the average SD Times reader didn’t even click through a link to see what it was about, but in not doing so, missed a watershed for software developers. OS X is going to be huge.

I’d only worked on two Macintoshes before this year—putting an inventory into Excel in 1985 and learning Smalltalk on a Macintosh FX machine. I’ve always felt the Macintosh, with its internals so hidden, was a computerphobe’s machine—a machine for the rest of them. In May, though, I began porting a Java-based XML-over-HTTP messaging server from Solaris and Windows NT to MacOS X. Despite several bumps, I soon switched to OS X as my primary development machine.

Now, before you consider doing that yourself, I’ll stress that no small part of my decision was based on the realization that OS X was the most difficult environment for the effort. Java 2 is brand new to the Macintosh, and there were a slough of libraries and components about which all that could be said was “there’s no reason to think they won’t work.”

And yes, there were considerable challenges that arose, technical problems that I dearly hope have been solved (I haven’t worked with the most recent drops of the operating system and tools), and other “cultural” problems involving the interface. Nevertheless, I can see a future in which I replace my workplace desktop, not with another Windows box nor even a Linux computer, but with a Macintosh.

Why? For one thing, OS X is built on top of NeXTStep and FreeBSD—just knowing there’s a solid *nix kernel beneath the glitz makes me infinitely more comfortable with the system.

For another, NeXTstep Developer is alive and well in Cocoa, a Java (and Objective C, for you NeXT fans) application development environment for OS X.

Finally, in case you haven’t noticed, for a Web developer, the Macintosh is a more important environment than Windows; your creative team is probably 80 percent or more Mac-based. By unifying your entire Web development staff with a single operating system, endless opportunities for increased efficiency present themselves. At the very least, imagine what happens when the powerful tools of the open-source movement—CVS, Bugzilla/Scarab, Ant, etc.—are embraced by the designers. Process engineering for Web development is frustratingly immature in all areas, but doubly so when it comes to content assets.

OS X combines the favored development environments of the two central worker groups for the New Economy—developers who love *nix and creative staff who love GUIs. With Web workers now costing a company six figures annually in salary and support costs, even the Apple:Intel price:performance differential is becoming irrelevant; if a Macintosh can make you significantly more effective, who cares if the hardware costs a little more?

Will OS X be the system on which the next World Wide Web-size killer application is written? Yes, I think so. On the other hand, I’ve got a NeXT gathering dust in my garage.


Larry O’Brien, the founding editor of Software Development Magazine, is a software engineering consultant based in San Francisco. He can be reached at lobrien@email.com.


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