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A Piece of Cake With Cocoa

By Charles Haddad I sense that the inviting blue throb of OS X is finally beginning to enthrall the lumpen proletariat of Mac programmers. I say this not because of the boast by Apple Chief Executive Officer Steve Jobs that 600 applications have already been written for Apple's new operating system, which was only released three months ago. Jobs has always inflated his numbers by including every last piece of shareware on the Internet, even if it's used by my grandmother (wonderful woman that she is). Fact is, most of the big developers such as Microsoft and Intuit have yet to release OS X versions of their programs.

Still, I'm increasingly hopeful about OS X, based on the reception the operating system received at last week's Worldwide Developers Conference in San Jose, Calif., the big annual confab of Mac developers. According to press reports, developers large and small sang the praises of OS X.

The WWDC, as it's known within the industry, is no pep rally for Apple. Just ask any Apple executive. For them, this get-together is akin to being grilled by the House of UnAmerican Activities, with executives called on to defend their many so-called "treasonous" decisions against developers. While they'll defend the Mac to the death against outside critics, Mac developers are a grumpy and demanding lot under the their own tent. Pleasing them is no small feat.

LIKE LEGOS. What has excited Mac developers isn't so much OS X's stunning graphical interface but the ease with which they can write new programs in Cocoa, OS X's native application environment. Apple, stealing a page from Microsoft, has written a set of easy-to-use software-development tools for Cocoa that turn the language into something like a set of Legos. Programs can be snapped together in minutes.

Scott Forstall, a senior Apple engineer, demonstrated Cocoa's ease-of-use before thousands of developers at WWDC. He fashioned a video editor in three minutes. "Imagine what you can do in 90 days," he teased his audience. It's talk like that sends tingles down the the spines of developers. Let's face it: The Mac has never been the easiest platform to write for. For one, Apple has not been especially supportive, which is why developers are always hammering Apple execs at the WWDC.

Also, the company has long forced developers to make programs work identically. That is, every Mac program -- whether spreadsheet or word processor -- had to have the same menu bar and commands. That's great for users, who only had to learn one operating standard. But it's a major pain for developers, who can't take the kind of shortcuts common in PC programming.

Now, thanks to Cocoa, programming for the Mac should be a lot easier for amateurs and professionals alike. With any luck, its ease of use will lure hundreds of new developers and developer wannabes. That's good. The Mac platform needs this new blood. One of these newcomers will probably be the one to develop the next killer app -- like SimCity or PageMaker -- that will assure OS X's success. Just don't ask me what the next killer app will be. Who would have guessed that two shrimpy Italian brothers named Mario would give birth to a computer-game industry that brings in more revenue than Hollywood theatrical releases?

REVAMPED UNIX? None of this is to suggest that OS X is anywhere near a finished operating system. Just look at the 1,000 engineers Apple has slaving away to fix and improve it. "We know OS X is not perfect," Jobs conceded at WWDC. Indeed, that's become clearer every day as crack developers and amateur hacks probe deeper and deeper into the unknown regions of this Unix-based system. Complains long-term Mac aficionado and writer Charles Moore: "OS X is just another Unix with a pretty face."

Moore has a point. While OS X is infinitely more powerful than its predecessor, it's also much less flexible and user-accessible. That's especially true for lay users who don't want to write a command line, ever. "Whatever happened to 'the computer for the rest of us?'" asks Moore, throwing one of Apple's marketing slogans back at the company.

The good news is that Jobs & Co. appear to be listening to curmudgeons such as Moore. I suspect that, by next year, OS X will look and feel a lot more polished than it does today. That's why it's a heck of a gutsy move by Jobs to begin shipping all new Macs with OS X now, two months ahead of his original schedule. I hope this vote of confidence in OS X that rings true for the rest of us. Haddad, Atlanta-based correspondent for BusinessWeek, is a long-time Apple Computer buff. Follow his weekly Byte of the Apple column, only on BW Online

Edited by Thane Peterson

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