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Tribble at the Top? Apple, NeXT grande fromage returns

Acts of succession

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Guy 'Bud' Tribble, one of the original Mac designers, has returned to Apple as Avi Tevanian's software lieutenant. His official title is VP of Software Technology.

But Tribble might be excused for feeling that he's never been away. Tribble was a co-founder of NeXT with Steve Jobs, and following NeXT's reverse-takeover of Apple in 1997, will find himself among familiar faces.

According to the Raskin School of Apple History, Tribble was a friend of Bill (HyperCard) Atkinson from UCSD, and Raskin hired both to work on the Macintosh user interface. Since NeXT, Tribble worked at Sun, heading consumer and embedded division, was the Sun-Netscape's Alliance CTO, and co-founded Eazel.

Why mention it? Well, let's get the red herring out of the way. Tribble's experience twenty years ago as a UI designer has given rise to hopes that he'll make the OS X UI more Mac-like. This is the holy war du jour. We can't surpass As The Apple Turns description of the return of an old hand:

"Don't get too excited - Apple hasn't capitulated and recrafted Mac OS X to conform to the Macintosh Human Interface Guidelines, nor has the company seen the light and admitted that filename extensions are an inherently morally offensive way to track file metadata. And no, the rainbow Apple logo isn't back, either."

Indeed, it's ridiculous to suggest that a senior industry figure with a reputation as a deep-thinking technology strategist will be making low-level user interface design judgements, such as how many items go in the 'Recent Documents' menu, or what the tint on the 'Home' icon should be.

No. Everyone knows Steve makes those kinds of decisions himself.

Far more interesting, given the seniority of the appointment, is the issue of succession.

If the unthinkable were to happen, and Steve Jobs was run over by a runaway muesli container truck, who would inherit the hot seat?

The two most prominent VPs are Jon Rubinstein, the hardware chief, and Avie Tevanian. Both of course, performed the same roles for NeXT, although Tevanian is the more junior of the two. Rubinstein is the more ebulliant public speaker than the modest Tevanian, and can be relied on to turn on the hyperbole in the corporate videos that accompany new kit. He's really quite good at it. And he's proved that he can handle the operations side (manufacturing comes under VP Tim Cook's umbrella) efficiently: making sure projects runs to schedule, keep to budget, and ensuring that supply roughly equates to demand: all factors that have been as crucial is saving Apple as the stylish product design. Boards like that.

Although Tribble reports to Avie, he's by several degrees the more senior. In fact, Tribble is comfortably senior enough to run Apple in the event of the Muesli Container Scenario. A Tribble-led Apple would be a lot quieter after the departure of the Reality Distortion Field, but then boards, like the English Football Association, often like to alternate between bookmakers and bishops when appointing the top man.

This isn't to say that there's any indication at all that Jobs wants to hand over the reins, or that there's any reason he should. But he now does have a third candidate, and all three have impeccable NeXTish DNA.

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