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What Happened to Stepwise?

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Cut back to the holiday season last year. People on the CLIX Forum run for Rixstep make a curious discovery: an old copy of Apple's 'Terminal' application with a 'run' dialog similar in appearance and functionality to Rixstep's Runner application. The dialog has since disappeared and is no longer in the current version - and in fact hasn't been seen in any version of Apple's OS X since 2001 - whereof an investigation into why and how and when it was removed.

One thing led to another and suddenly people were looking at 'annals' of the Apple developer conferences 1997-1999 kept online but in obscurity at the website Stepwise run by the junior contributor to the Cocoa programming bible 'Scott' Anguish.

To say the least these discoveries were shockers. The crew at Rixstep had jumped in head first into OS X programming in the autumn of 2001 without really having a handle on how that curious company Apple worked; looking at something so fantastic as NeXTSTEP - which is what OS X is - they naturally presumed - as most neophytes at the time - that things would catch on and soon everybody would be running it.

As time went on and news of cross platform possibilities were more and more conspicuous in their absence the writing on the wall became more and more legible: Apple were a funny company seemingly obsessed with keeping a marginal 5% of the total computer market rather than pushing a product that could easily overtake Windows and drive it into oblivion.

Considering the deplorable state of Internet security today - and especially back in the 'Code Red' summer of 2001 - this was far from a lofty sentiment.

As time went on the Rixstep crew noticed more and more how the Unix/NeXTSTEP underpinnings of this classic operating system and environment were eroded in the name of a long forgotten 'beige box ideal' which turned computing on its head back in 1984 and never moved since.

Apple's 'Mac OS' was in such sorry shape by the middle of the 1990s and in house efforts to recreate the code base in 32-bit so futile and abortive that Apple began flirting with other companies to buy in their next generation system instead. They went to Be, they even went to Microsoft and negotiated a licence for Windows NT - and they finally turned their gaze at NeXT.

 OPENSTEP 4.2 January 1997. Fantastic, isn't it? Remember too: this is eleven (11) years ago.

And it was NeXT they bought - for $429 million. They got the system, they got the 300 engineers including Jon Rubinstein and Avie Tevanian, and they got NeXT CEO Steve Jobs - the latter to officially roam the corridors without title.

Jobs didn't much like being at Apple without title and beseeched CEO Gil Amelio on several occasions, pointing out he'd once upon a time co-founded the company and thought he was entitled to at least a seat on the board. 'Don't push it' was Amelio's admonishment time after time. 'They still don't like you.'

And true to form as the renowned corporate doctor he was Amelio made plans to recreate Apple in a new mold more applicable for the coming millennium. There were to be two distinctly sovereign divisions: for software and for hardware.

And the software division under Avie Tevanian were to continue supporting NeXTSTEP (OpenStep) as a platform independent space age replacement for Windows. (NeXT's OPENSTEP was already running on Windows at the time.)

And the hardware division under Jon Rubinstein were to grind out the by far best quality computer hardware found anywhere to run any operating system found anywhere.

It would have been a Brave New (and Better) World but the dream was roundly crushed in the 4 July weekend 1997.

By Friday 4 July Gil Amelio was out of town; when the cat's away and so forth; Steve Jobs dumped all his Apple stock on NASDAQ and caused a crash. Naturally the Apple board were furious and summoned Steve Jobs. And this was exactly what he wanted.

Steve Jobs was within his rights in selling his stock; he was the only NeXT stockholder not paid in cash but in Apple stock; he was also told to not sell anything for the first half year. And he duly promised to comply.

And now it was more than half a year since the ink dried on the merger but no one ever suspected Jobs would dump everything. But that's what he did.

Before the tribunal of the Apple board of directors Jobs explained he had no faith in the corporate leadership of Gil Amelio. Amelio was of course out of town and couldn't defend himself - that was the whole idea. Jobs pointed to the bottom line and claimed the company were losing money hand over fist; they were - but they were on the road to recovery thanks to Amelio and again: Amelio wasn't there to defend himself.

Jobs walked out of the meeting with the CEO title in his pocket. Provisionally only to be sure. And on a token $1 per annum salary too. But he had the slot.

Jobs walked right into the office of Amelio's secretary and told her to clean out her desk and leave. The secretary protested that her boss was Amelio and not Jobs; Amelio was away for the weekend; and she took orders only from Amelio.

Jobs rudely told her he was the new CEO and she would therefore take orders from him and she was to clean out her desk and get out. She got out.

Jobs set about reversing all the policies of the previous half year. No more platform independence, no more 'best operating system for anyone's hardware', no more 'best hardware for anyone's software' - now it was going to be a Frog Design 'beige box' all over again. Save where the Apple engineers were incapable of creating the code on their own they'd borrow from the $429 million NeXT legacy Jobs had just been paid for.

Software chief Tevanian was to say the least despondent and seriously suggested gutting the entire $429 million colossus and starting from scratch. The legacy Apple engineers wanted the same system as before except different and were not prepared to accept the infinitely superior NeXT interface - no matter how many gurus (such as web creator Tim Berners-Lee) claimed it was the only GUI worth using.

Screen dumps the CLIX Forum people found were particularly telling. From stunning EPS vector graphics the Apple people took the NeXT interface and made it look like the dinky Mac OS of old. To any serious engineer this must have been heartbreaking.

Gradually - over a period of five years - they built it back up to the point it was again almost viable, not quite as good as OPENSTEP had been but close enough, and still reasonably looked and acted like the Mac OS of old.

Except five years and countless opportunities had been lost. Opportunities such as precluding Microsoft's Windows 98, their Windows 98SE, their Windows Me, their Windows 2000, and even their Windows XP - all released in the interim Apple engineers were playing pointlessly with OPENSTEP.

Microsoft consolidated their position as the 'gorilla' of the market and Apple wallowed with their worst sales in decades, down to 1-2% to Microsoft's 98+%. Talk about abysmal.

But finally the system came out and it was better than nothing and it was the only 'turnkey' 'secure' Unix alternative to Windows so it was definitely something to look into.

Except it wasn't going anywhere.

Steve Jobs has always had a chip on his shoulder and his only way of assuaging his haunting condition is with gadgets. He's the Inspector Gadget of the computer world. First it was the blue box - for free international calls; then it was the beige box - the Macintosh; then it was the black box - the NeXT computer; then it was the white box - the iPod; and so forth.

Always a gadget, always a dazzle, and always the darling of the media who are always ready to take a breather from ordinary serious reporting to show what the 'other side' are up to.

But the market share has remained constant: today Apple enjoy over half their revenues not from their abortive computer and software production but from iPods (and now marginally iPhones). The twist is so significant they no longer call their company 'Apple Computer' but 'Apple' pure and simple because they've long since ceased to be a computer company.

And yet as Jobs himself once noted: 'once the third party developers stop writing software for you it's all over'. And in 1997 when the Apple NeXT merger was still new and when Amelio's departure was only weeks away, there were plenty of NeXT third party developers who wanted to stay on board - who Apple wanted to keep on board. At least for the time being.

The big news of course was that OPENSTEP already ran on Windows and third party developers were able to sell their software to the enormous Windows market. And you'd think Apple would want to exploit this advantage as well. But you'd be wrong.

Not that Apple or Jobs ever let on what their real plans were - and that's the whole point.

For three successive years - as evidenced by the reports of Scott Anguish - Apple led these NeXT third party developers down the garden path.

 Rhapsody '1.0' September 1997. A software engineering felony if there ever was one.

Running on Windows was important to Apple, they were told. It was paramount. It was described by Anguish in his poorly written reports as a 'mantra' - Apple kept bringing the subject up and continually pointed out how high a priority Windows support was.

Except it wasn't. And the NeXT third party developers held on for dear life. And it wasn't until the summer of 1999 that they began to realise they'd been screwed.

And it's all there in Scott Anguish's reports. Or used to be. When the crew at Rixstep published excerpts from the reports the fanatical world of the Apple maniacs went ballistic. Nobody had paid attention to those articles in years. A lot of people didn't know even they existed. But now the cat was out of the bag.

Purportedly it was the insufferable John Gruber who first noticed and brought it to Anguish's attention. Who promptly took all the report pages offline and launched into a typically sloppily written excuse for their removal.

This all happened in the holiday season last year. The crew at Rixstep mostly just ignored it all. Apple hooligans are a waste of space as an extracurricular activity. But if they won't take the matter up then someone else will.

Someone else just did.

Scott Anguish is in a lot of trouble today. Since desperately begging for employment in the beginning of the new millennium he's been able to secure a position at Apple taking care of documentation. This roughly matches his role as junior author on the Cocoa programming bible: of the near seventy programming examples for the book, some of which are hugely nontrivial, Anguish wrote only nine - and most of these weren't even complete or 'real' programs anyway. As an independent developer Anguish has been able to release a single program in twenty years - a 'zip' utility long since superseded by the system itself.

But as an Apple employee Anguish is not allowed to air opinions or any remarks about the company whatsoever in public. Suddenly everybody was reading his account of the Apple cross platform bait and switch and his head was close to rolling.

The way out? Dissemble of course. Claim the opposite of what you're actually doing. Claim someone's 'stolen' your materials - and for this reason alone you must take your incriminating evidence offline.

And it's almost plausible - except for the fact the original Rixstep article linked through to the Anguish articles at his Stepwise site; if anybody had had any doubt who wrote what they'd only have had to click through to find out; but now they were being denied the one thing Anguish claimed he wanted to stop.

And through all this - as if by evil plan - the original point of discussion has been forgotten. Namely that in 1997 Apple inherited a fantastic operating system that ran on everyone's computer and today would be the dominant system but for the obsessions of one man who stops at nothing - even jeopardising his company's welfare and the health of the Internet at large - to keep his hands and his hands alone on his 'whole banana'.

See Also
Rixstep Hotspots: Apple's Cross-Platform Bait & Switch

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