Let's go to San Francisco

JOBS, NeXT, push, OS, Be, Gil, Steve and Woz versus multithreading, pre emptive multitasking, memory protection and object oriented…

JOBS, NeXT, push, OS, Be, Gil, Steve and Woz versus multithreading, pre emptive multitasking, memory protection and object oriented programming that was the long and the short of it at this year's premier event for everything Macintosh, the San Francisco MacWorld Expo. Over a four day stretch earlier this month, 80,000 people roamed the vast halls of the Moscone Centre and paid homage to the elegant computer that refuses to die.

Despite parent company Apple's current fiscal woes, the mood was upbeat and there was a zing in the air - in the surprise move of the decade Apple had welcomed back its brilliant but unpredictable co founder Steve Jobs, an event that was greeted with general jubilation by Mac users. In buying Jobs's software company NeXT, Apple gained a future operating system (OS) to replace its ageing MacOS. NeXT staff roamed the floor of the massive Apple exhibition area, happy to answer questions or show off the NeXT OS Open Step, which will eventually be integrated with the MacOS to create a new OS, codenamed Rhapsody.

In addition, healthy crowds packed the small Be Inc display area to watch back to back demonstrations of the Be OS, the jilted operating system Apple dumped at the last minute for NeXT. Among other things, the dowry was too high.

Nonetheless, the OS in action was nothing short of astonishing, working at scorching speed. At one point demonstrator Joseph Palmer had at least 12 windows open, six of which were running QuickTime movies.


When he booted up a virtual Mac OS into an additional window - a capability delivered on Christmas Day - he'd won over the sceptics. Along with OpenStep, the Be OS incorporates all the "multis", memory protection, and the object oriented technology on Apple's OS wishlist. Besides having two new operating systems to mull over, visitors got previews of the four upcoming upgrades to the current System 7 MacOS.

The annual lovefest began with a star spangled bang with a lengthy keynote speech by Apple CEO Gil Amelio. The San Francisco Macworld Expo has turned into an annual State of the Apple address, and this year's message was that the once nerdish world of computing has become as glamorous and celebrity ridden as Hollywood. After a rousting Independence Day opening, Amelio was introduced by none other than star Jeff Goldblum, who saved the planet from marauding aliens in the film with the aid of a trusty Mac PowerBook.

Musician Peter Gabriel made a pitch for the Mac, and Muhammed Ali was out in the audience for further moral support. Amelio eventually made his points in the sprawling presentation, but all the 4,000 audience members really wanted to see was Steve Jobs, who eventually came out to demonstrate Open Step and cheerlead for Apple. When co founder Steve Wozniak also came on stage in a celebration of Apple's 20th anniversary, the nerdish cup truly ranneth over and the only possible response was an extended standing ovation.

But the real action was happening back on the exhibition hall floor, where another computer company founder named Steve was creating the kind of energetic presence Apple fans have long awaited from Apple itself. Using a military theme, Texas based Power Computing raked in huge audiences for its hilarious, well crafted multi screen video assault ("This is a rebel broadcast!") and wild demonstrations by a comedy team. Huge banners with the jovial face of founder Stephen Kahng were printed with massive anti Wintel slogans: "Steve says: Tyranny does not make for a friendly operating system"; "Steve says: Fight for your OS or you will lose it"; "Steve says: We will win through mouse to mouse combat."

Last year the small Mac clone maker was the focus of much attention because of its fast custom configurable machines. This year, it can boast several awards and it took over a full corner of one hall. "In our first year, we've surpassed the first year sales of Dell, Compaq and Gateway combined," said Doreen Lorenzo director of marketing communications.

High end Power Computing machines will ship with the Be OS as optional.

As event goers rushed from exhibitor to exhibitor to collect standard geekwear such as Tshirts, badges, key rings and even flak waistcoats from Power Computing, they could also take in some hot new products. The Internet buzzword of the moment is "push", as in push technology. This delivers information to a Net surfer either through continuous broadcast or through different "channels", rather than requiring a user to browse for information on his or her own. Pointcast, the best known "pusher", wasn't there, but up and coming Intermind, with a custom tailorable, more efficent application, was evangelising the Mac faithful.

Several companies were proselytising their automatic drag and drop Web page design software, which takes advantage of one of the key ease of use features of the Mac. Adobe created the market with its nifty PageMill, launched at last year's Expo, and once again attendees queued for tickets to attend one of its Web page design sessions.

Across the hall, interactive toolmakers mFactory had visitors riveted to their demo of their software mTropolis. A handful of developers were thrilled by the software's capabilities but most of the punters were there just for the stunning 3D graphics from the soon to be released game Obsidian.

And for those who were tired of hands on experience, Hunter Digital had the perfect solution: its NoHands Mouse. Operated by two pedals set on the floor, the "mouse" is manoeuvred by gently swivelling the feet.

Apple is promising to launch Rhapsody this time next year. By all accounts, this year's Expo has given most people the confidence to hang around and see what Gil and Steve have cooked up by then.

Karlin Lillington

Karlin Lillington

Karlin Lillington, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about technology