Who killed Apple's Rhapsody?

Strange but true -- Steve did, not Bill

The curious death of Apple's next-generation Rhapsody OS is likely to be one of the less-noticed sideshows of the Microsoft trial. The software is the reason Steve Jobs is running Apple today, and while Apple hasn't actually said flat-out that it's no more, its demise seems to have been one of the things Avie Tevanian and Microsoft's attorney were arguing about yesterday. Tevanian claims in his testimony, which was made public last week, that Apple had "embarked on an ambitious campaign to convince... ISVs to adapt their programs to make use of Apple's new APIs for Rhapsody". But "developers, including Microsoft, told Apple that they were concerned that Apple would not be able to obtain a critical mass of application programs written to work with the new Rhapsody APIs and that customers, accordingly, would not buy computers containing the new operating system. "Apple eventually concluded that it would be unable to convince a sufficient number of ISVs to develop applications for the new APIs. Most professional developers are simply unwilling to develop application programs for a new platform in a world dominated by Microsoft's Windows operating system. Thus, Apple abandoned its plans to introduce Rhapsody as a new operating system." But shall we be Microsoft attorneys for the moment? Good ones, that is, rather than the ones the company's got? Rhapsody, as announced in January 1997, was to consist of NeXT OpenStep-based APIs, a MacOS compatibility module and a Java virtual machine. The premier release had been due at the beginning of this year; the unified one, with Mac compatibility on board, by now. As regards those APIs Apple couldn't get developers to support, these are of course APIs that NeXT couldn't get developers to support. Avie knows this. Avie worked for NeXT before he followed Steve to Apple. The Mac compatibility module was there because Apple always knew this, and ex-IBMer Ellen Hancock, who did the initial Rhapsody announcement before she got Steved, certainly knew this from experience of OS/2 and Taligent. The theory of this school of OS development has not so far worked in practice, but it says you allow users to run their existing apps while making it possible for a whole new generation of compelling apps to take over in the long run. Tevanian knows this too -- OpenStep was never about getting Microsoft to port Office to it. And Apple's failure to get ISVs to port to Rhapsody was predictable, seeing that during the period it was allegedly trying it was also desperately trying to stop developers jumping ship from the Mac to Windows. Microsoft was not, of course, directly responsible for this. It may or may not have ultimate responsibility for where Apple found itself in 1997, but the developers were taking to the lifeboats of their own accord, and weren't about to buy even more of a minority OS from Apple. Now, about Apple abandoning "its plans to introduce Rhapsody as a new operating system" (note the phrasing). When did it actually do this? When the company announced its new OS strategy on 11 May 1998 it roadmapped MacOS 8.5 for this year and MacOS X for next, and it said: "Apple is paving the path to MacOS X with two important operating system software releases scheduled for 1998: MacOS 8.5 and Rhapsody." MacOS X was in some senses presented as an evolution of the Rhapsody strategy, and in another sense it did look like it was the death of that strategy. But there we have it, friends -- an Apple release of 11 May commits the company to the release of Rhapsody this year. So was this untrue at the time? If not, when was the decision to cancel it taken? Could we maybe think of this 'cancellation' as being represented by OpenStep (which Apple still has to support) going into 'maintenance' mode? (Note for non-IBMers -- maintenance means letting the poor saps who're stuck with it carry on using it, but making it progressively more difficult to do so). Looking at all of this, you could think that maybe strategic decisions at Apple under Jobs are being taken 'on the march', changed suddenly, and that history is being judiciously rewritten when necessary. With Rhapsody, Apple really abandoned an ambitious strategy it couldn't afford, and switched over to a cheaper 'back to basics' strategy instead. This was sensible, but it wasn't directly Microsoft's fault. Microsoft's attorney yesterday described Rhapsody as a "failed OS", but he could have made more of it. ® Complete Register trial coverage Click for more stories Click for story index

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