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Scouring the Back Streets at MacWorld

By Charles Haddad No offense, Apple, but I'm going to steer clear of your mammoth booth at the MacWorld trade show in New York City's Jacob Javits Center (the show runs from Wednesday, July 18, through Friday, July 20). It's not that your black-shirted presenters and their pyrotechnic demos aren't a blast. But this year, I have no time for games. I'm on a quest for the next MacPaint, Word, or PageMaker -- killer software that not only made the original Mac a must-have machine but changed people's ideas about what personal computers can do.

Remember, back in 1984, the Mac was anything but a success. It was competing against not only the IBM PC but Apple's own initial line of personal computers. I was among those who first took a chance on the Mac. Night after night, I sat in front of it, studying its adorable curvy box and wondering what the heck I could do with this little machine.

Then along came Microsoft Word, and suddenly I could use my Mac to write and design a newsletter. No need for a typesetter. Next came PageMaker. And with the advent of Visicalc, the original spreadsheet, I could easily figure out just how slim the margins are in publishing newsletters. In these programs, groundbreakers in their time, the Mac had gained a purpose in life and with it, a following.

OLD TOOLS, NEW LIFE. About 10,000 of us Mac followers are expected to attend this year's MacWorld. OS X will be the star, and I don't anticipate a repeat of 1984's difficulties -- the agonizing wait between the introduction of a new OS and software for it. This time around, Apple's months of arm-twisting is starting to pay off. More than 50% of Mac developers plan to release software for OS X in the next six months, according to a recent survey by the company.

Better yet, Apple says, three out of four developers are writing programs that will marshal OS X's impressive new features. They include photo-realistic graphics, the ability to truly run more than one program at the same time, and a muscular stability that prevents a crashing program from freezing the whole machine. At this point, all the big boys -- Microsoft, Adobe, and Connectix among them -- are working on OS X versions of their popular programs. Apple itself has already released an OS X version of its AppleWorks suite, which includes a word processor, database, and spreadsheet.

That the major developers are embracing OS X is all well and good. But they're not the ones who are going to make the next-generation OS a hit. Combo suites such as AppleWorks and Office are yesterday's breakthroughs. And merely porting them to OS X is giving users the same stuff in a pretty new aqua box.

QUEST FOR PROPHETS. I suppose at this stage, with OS X just emerging from its pupae, this is to be expected. At the dawn of any new technology, the reigning techno-monarchs embrace the new tools to make the same old ax handles. That's why the first TV shows were not much more than videotaped radio and early Web sites read like a page from a book.

Thus, my quest. I'm on the hunt for dreamers determined to use OS X to create whole new ways to use a Mac. What those ways might be, I'm not sure. I suspect it will involve new ways to combine art, sound, and video.

I have a suggestion. What about a program that lets you generate a digital representation of yourself? E-mail the digital you to the office server, where it can do your work. Imagine, no more agonizing commutes. No more squaring off over who gets the corner office. All would be equal, each only identified through an incomprehensible digital address on some anonymous office server. Hey, it's an idea.

People with these kinds of loony ideas aren't likely to be working at the big developers' brilliantly lit MacWorld displays. You're more apt to find such dreamers occupying a stool within the crowded bazaar of small booths behind the Microsoft and Apple areas. That's certainly where you'll find me. In this maze of winding, dimly lit alleys, I'll be the one squinting, trying to discern the faint outline of the Mac's future. 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

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