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The 2% Kingdom

Week of July 1, 2005

He could have but he didn't.


Once there was a blue box. It made long distance calls all over the world for no money to speak of at all. Steve Jobs sold this blue box. It was a great thing.

The blue box gave way eventually to the beige box. One of the principal partipants on the beige box project lost it - before succumbing to illness. He went loony.

The beige box was powered by Pascal, a programming language invented by Niklas Wirth of Switzerland. Pascal is a horrible language and guru Brian Kernighan later would totally destroy the language in a famous diatribe, 'Why I Don't Like Pascal'.

Niklas Wirth's response? His language was never meant for professional use - as a teaching tool only.

Try telling the beige box weenies.

While everyone else in the world were studying their associativity tables, Pascal weenies at Apple had fabulous colour posters reminding them of the syntax of their language. A lot of good it did.

By the time Steve Jobs returned to Cupertino both Apple and its OS were a bleeding mess. The OS that should never have been, it went from embarrassing boner to worse and ultimately could not be resuscitated anymore.

It still ran cooperative multitasking - this all the more inexcusable considering the solid hardware platform being used - and Mac users, loudly boasting how user-friendly their platform was, were burdened with kernel extensions that crashed the OS all the time, with direct RAM allocations per program, and with a hundred other things that made the Macintosh the laughing stock of the professional world.

Enter Steve Jobs - and NeXT. For whatever the world wants to credit him for, he did - perhaps (most likely) in spite of himself - create the one true descendant of Kay Smalltalk and the one viable environment for the creation of graphic user interface programs: NeXTSTEP. Put this on top of a flavour of Unix, and run a MACH kernel to boot, and you have one of the best computing environments ever created.

And now here's the catch: there are people out there who were not overjoyed by the turn of events in Cupertino. They didn't want to go back to school.

No matter their precious platform would have gone tits up in weeks if Steve and NeXT hadn't come to the rescue, they were still not satisfied: they whined and they held their breath until they turned bluebox blue and finally they got their compromise - a compromise that today is costing Steve Jobs, the Apple stockholders, and the world at large a price no one should have to pay.

NeXTSTEP technology is by definition platform independent. When NeXT came to Apple it was running on platforms all over the place. Yet as time went on, as the Luddites continued to bitch, this support was drawn in - and for several reasons.

Although NeXTSTEP is portable, Mac programs are not. They're horrible constructs, bound by Pascal and whatnot and totally dependent on the ROM 'toolbox' that used to run inside Mac computers.

Objective-C, the programming language at the heart of NeXTSTEP, is incredibly easy to learn, and yet these industry giants didn't want to take the few hours needed to learn it - and to this day they still won't.

Instead Apple re-wired the old ROM toolbox into NeXTSTEP and called it Carbon.

NeXTSTEP programmers have always heralded the 'merger' between NeXT and Apple. It was a chance for them to see their technology hit the mainstream. What happened instead - unfortunately - is that the diehards within Apple pushed the clock back.

Nexties have been OK with this for years. Why Apple would worry about beige box weenies anyway was a mystery, but let them: Nexties are programmers, very serious programmers, and Apple have marketing gurus who may know better. So let them try to garner the interest of the weenies, build up market share, and then only gradually return NeXTSTEP to its former glory.

But that glory is a thing of the past and Tiger is the best signal ever that it is gone forever.

What the world got instead was a horrible 'Mac' operating system brought back for a tentative continuation thanks to real technology, but given the idiots in the confines of Cupertino a technology that Apple will ruin as they ruined the 'Mac' before it.

All the while we have the John Siracusas of the world clamouring for the golden days when Finder beloved Finder was spatial, totally blithering oblivious to what's really going on, clamouring and starting protests to put even more pressure on the company that could finally have saved the world...

Steve Jobs is CEO of two corporations. Given that he has a hard work week, he can still only devote three days a week to Apple. He comes in, checks around, finds out what is going on, gives his $0.02, and hightails it crosstown to Pixar and does the same thing.

In the evenings he goes home to dinner with his family and he thinks about things like this. He hears the criticism. He hears the small voices that are like memories from the past, the recommendations of Bill Gates and others as to what he should be really doing - recommendations he totally ignored at the time and has categorically dismissed ever since - and he begins talking to himself. Silently.

To himself he says silently, trying to shrug the chill out: 'I'm still the CEO of Pixar, the most successful animated motion picture company in the world, and Apple are looking pretty good too. I am a success. I have nothing to worry about.'

And he's right: he has nothing to worry about. As long as his kids don't start drinking Pepsi, he's fine.

But he could have been a mover instead of being leader of the weirdest computer movement the world has ever seen. He could have licensed 'his' software across the planet and changed the way we all work and live.

He could have made life better for us all.

But he didn't. Bon appetit.

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