The HitchHiker’s Guide to the Macintosh: Part 4

Written by: Adam Christianson

Categories: Editorial, News

A Brief and Warped History of the Mac, part 4 (in which the Mac readies a come-back)

Welcome back to my column – and if you’ve followed the story this far then you are truly a Mac Geek. Last week, under the control of Michael Spindler, Apple had not managed to do anything to improve it’s aging operating system and were bleeding money.

With the arrival of Gil Amelio, Apple entered its make or break era. In his short reign Amelio presided over some of the things that have made Apple what it is today. But this part of the story starts not with Amelio, but with catching up with Apple founder Steve Jobs.

I know you were all waiting for his comeback, so I’ll get on with it. After being ousted from Apple, Jobs had been busy. In 1986, he bought the computer division of George Lucas’s Lucas Film. This company cost $10 million and became Pixar. Pixar are still the leading company in computer rendering graphics and technology as well as producing 5 blockbuster movies with Disney.

Jobs also set up another computer company. His new vision was to create a computer that was elegent inside and out in every way. Everything from the motherboard design to the interface was created to make designers cry with joy. The company was called NeXT.

The computer that NeXT produced was to be based in wholly modern computer thinking. It would use an object orientated programming approach, which was something previously unheard of in the personal computer market. Jobs managed to lure seven developers from Apple’s Mac division to join him at NeXT and also brought Avie Tevanian into the company to head development of its operating system.

From its beginnings back at Bell Labs, many people in the computer industry had taken up the UNIX operating system, but it was at Universities where it fully developed. Numerous flavours of UNIX existed and different companies had devised their own shells. At the University of California, Berkeley, they created one of the most popular flavours of UNIX – Free BSD.
But at Carnegie-Mellon University they used this as the basis for Mach – a micro-kernal operating system, in which the Unix operating system creates a super efficient interface between hardware functions and any other software.

Avie Tevanian had been one of those working with Mach and Jobs wanted his NeXT computer to utilise this technology. The other breakthrough in NeXT’s operating system was PostScript. While the Mac was already using PostScript to describe graphics for print, the leap in NeXT was to use this technology for on-screen graphics. The resultant operating system was called NeXT Step, and the computer that ran it was the NeXT Cube. It was a perfect cube made of magnesium built in a fully automated factory. It arrived in 1988 and was powered by the same MC68030 processor as in contemporary Macs. It had massive 8Mb RAM and instead of a floppy disk, used a Canon 256Mb magneto-optical drive. It was applauded by the computer industry for it’s innovation, but like the Lisa before it, failed to sell in great numbers.

The NeXT cube does have one massive claim to fame. It was used by Tim Berners-Lee to create the protocols on which the internet depends.

Following the NeXT Cube, came the NeXT station. But only 50,000 units ever sold and Jobs made the decision to focus on developing the NeXT operating system. It was ported to work on Intel chips as well as the PowerPC and other architectures. However, it still did not have much commercial success.
NeXT eventually were forced to focus on an operating environment, rather than a whole operating system. The mach kernel was removed and it was adapted into OpenSTEP, which ran object orientated software on top on another operating system. NeXT also developed WebObjects, a powerful web server application that is used today to power .Mac services and the iTunes Music Store.

Apple probably wondered how NeXT were doing it, because their attempts to build a new operating system for the Mac had come to nothing. The blue, pink and red strategy had failed, a lot of other code names had been banded around, but not produced anything productive.

Star Trek was one of these efforts. Working with Novell, Apple tried to get Mac software running on Intel chips – a solution that may have enabled Mac software to run side by side with Windows on existing PCs. But having committed to the PowerPC, Apple abandoned this approach.
Raptor was probably the red project – a highly ambitious OS that would run on a variety of hardware. The plan was for Apple to develop their own mach-style microkernel. This project ran out of money and was eventually cancelled.
Nukernal was an obvious name for the successor to Star Trek and Raptor, but that too never got off the ground.
Tal OS was the pink project – an object-orientated operating system devised with IBM. It ended up spawning an object-orientated environment to run on top of other operating systems such as Windows and the proposed Apple Nukernal. Eventually, IBM took it over wholly.
Gershwin was another codename and seemed to have a lot of solid ideas behind it, but no-one at Apple ever claims to have worked on the project.

The most likely effort for revolutionising the Mac was Copland. Apple put full support into the project, aiming for this to become Mac system 8. Sadly, the important features like protected memory, symmetric multiprocessing and using a microkernel had to be axed, but a lot of the technologies developed for Copland did make their way into the system later.

In a last ditch effort, Michael Spindler had resorted to the desperate measure that he had previously ruled out – and opened up the Mac to other companies. It was at this point that the name Mac OS was born. Mac OS 7.6 was the first version to sport the name and was used on Mac clones by companies such as Power Computing. Apple were shocked when Power Computing used cheaper PC parts to build inexpensive computers that could outperform Apple’s own machines. Apple was pushing the PowerPC 604e to 300Mhz, but Power Computer had a 350Mhz machine in the works.
Mac OS 8 delivered a few innovations from Copland, including an enhanced interface and further integration of Apple’s graphics and networking technology. By Mac OS 8.5, it had been rewritten to by fully native on the PowerPC processors. Mac OS 8 also featured an API designed for Copland to allow Copland applications to run.

But Apple still needed a wholly new operating system. Gil Amelio realised his best option was to simply buy someone else’s operating system. After much consideration, Apple had only two choices – BeOS or NeXT.
Apple chose NeXT and bought the company for $402 billion. With it they inherited NeXT step, with its mach kernel, Web Objects, and of course Steve Jobs.

Also in 1997, Apple created one of the most notable computers it has developed – the Twentieth Anniversary Mac. It was an upright, curved machine with built-in LCD display and a flip-down CD-ROM. Rather than the usual beige, it was made of silvery grey plastic and came with a BOSE subwoofer that also contained the power converter for the machine. It shared most of its innards with the top line Performa machines and featured a PPC 603e processor and built-in TV card. The Twentieth Anniversary Mac was the biggest design revolution since the original Mac; the strangest thing about it was its name. 1997 was a year late for the twentieth anniversary of Apple Computers, and seven years early for the anniversary of the Mac.

Amelio bowed out of Apple and left CFO, Fred Anderson in charge until Steve Jobs became interim CEO.
Jobs made several big changes to the company’s organisation. He cancelled any further work on the Newton, and refused to renew the licences to companies building Mac clones. In fact, Apple bought out Power Computer, the most successful of the cloners.

Steve announced the new plan called Rhapsody. It involved turning NeXT step into the new Mac OS. Apple started talking about coloured boxes, but essentially, the operating that was proposed would be founded entirely on NeXT technology and include an application that would allow applications from the existing Mac OS to run in their own environment.

Jobs also unveiled a new and simplified range of high-end Power Macintosh G3 machines based on the PowerPC 750 processor – the third generation of PowerPC.

There was plenty of speculation about when Apple’s new operating system would be available, as well as if Apple would bring the PowerPC G3 to its Performa range of home computers…

Read this column next week and discover the shaky origins of the modern Mac…

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  1. Bruno | Jul 16 2005 - 10:59

    Thanks for all the fish!