Careers: Interviews
Noted Writer, Author, Software Engineer, and Mac OS Expert

This week, Stephen Ibaraki, I.S.P., has an exclusive interview with the noted Apple expert, Brian Tiemann.

 

Brian Tiemann is a freelance technology columnist and software engineer who has written extensively in online magazines about the Macintosh, Apple software, and the philosophy of user-friendly design. A creative professional in the graphic arts and web-design world, he has used Mac OS X since its introduction because of its UNIX-based stability underlying the powerful built-in creative tools that let him bring his graphics, music, movies, and photography to life. Having been a Mac user for nearly twenty years, he has observed Apple's growth from a maker of simple personal computers to the powerhouse of film production, digital music, online lifestyle, and publishing that it is today. His new book, “Mac OS X Panther in a Snap,” is a comprehensive task-oriented guide to Apple's newest operating system, with hundreds of step-by-step demonstrations of the tasks inherent to using this complex piece of software to its full capacity.

 

A 1999 graduate of the California Institute of Technology, Brian works in the field of networking and software quality engineering, and his enthusiasm for the open-source movement--particularly the FreeBSD operating system--has led him to co-author “FreeBSD Unleashed” (translated into three languages) and “Teach Yourself FreeBSD in 24 Hours,” both from Sams Publishing.

 

Brian has contributed articles to the online AppleLust magazine, and has appeared on KZYX FM's "Point & Click Radio" program with Bob Laughton and Jim Heid.

 

Discussion:

 

Q: Brian, as an acknowledged authority in the Mac environment and FreeBSD, we are fortunate to have you with us to do this interview—thank you!

 

A: It's my pleasure.

 

Q: What triggered your interest in computers?

 

A: I was one of those kids whom you just couldn't keep away from the things. I always got along better with machines than with other kids-- it's an old and trite story, I'm afraid, but a true one in my case. I'm sure things have changed a great deal in the public school system since I was that age, but the computer labs full of Atari 400's and Apple II's were always where I felt most at home. It wasn't until high school, though, that I really started to see them more as tools, a means to an end, rather than as an end in themselves. That's when I found myself fascinated by CAD in my drafting classes; my first real paying job was as an AutoCAD technician for a local hydraulic cylinder company. I was only sixteen at the time, but it was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.

 

At the same time, I was pushing the limits of my home PC by exploring raytracing, which we now know today as the 3D modeling technology they use in movie studios like Pixar. Even then I could tell that the applications you ran on your computer, and the results you got with them, were a whole lot more important than the details of the platform you were running it on. So even though most of my formative years were spent on DOS and Windows machines, I was always a bit envious of my friends who had Macintoshes. They always seemed to know something I didn't.

 

Q: Describe your time at the California Institute of Technology.

 

A: You know how they always say you only remember the good things about college, and never the bad? I'm already getting to that stage. It's all nostalgia now. Even though I know how maddeningly difficult it was to flounder along at a school that demanding, today all I remember is the exhilarating intensity of the academic atmosphere there, as well as the social architecture that was so unique about the place. You'll never see that kind of thing anywhere else, I think. If you've ever seen the movie "Real Genius," it was written to be reminiscent of Caltech.

 

Even so, I wasn't quite in my element there. Another famous aphorism is that "half the students are in the bottom 50% of the class," and I can't claim to have been some kind of academic superstar. I studied Mechanical Engineering, but after two years it became clear to me that my heart really wasn't in it. What really fascinated me was the Internet. It sounds corny now to speak of the Internet with awe and reverence, but when I first arrived on campus in 1994, the Web was brand-new, and all the new technologies and techniques had yet to be invented. I was in on the whole revolution. I had a movie fan site that I established almost right away, using the Institute's computers; as Web technologies developed, I kept changing the site to stay on the cutting edge. I spent so much time working on it that I got distracted from my work, and at a place like Caltech, that's disastrous.

 

It was about then that I had to take serious stock of my priorities and find a balancing point. I started concentrating on server-side code development -- Perl, mostly -- of labor-saving administrative tools, which both freed up my time from working on the site, and prepared me for what I had the feeling would become my career, in the network technology industry. This allowed me to focus better on my real priority, which was graduating. I did that in 1999.

 

And wouldn't you know it, I went straight to work in the networking technology field. Today I do software quality engineering for a company making network architecture products, but I can never just stick with one thing. Now I'm writing books on FreeBSD and the Macintosh in what free time I do have. That comes from all the time I spent working with computers of all shapes and sizes in the labs on campus. I always did find operating systems a lot more interesting than contour integrals...

 

Q: Please share your top “amazing” lessons garnered through your work experiences.

 

A: Things I've learned through my years in the tech sector have primarily to do with user-interface theory, which I'll talk about a little later. But that comes mostly from my experiences in designing infrastructural Web tools for my company to use. My actual primary job is to coordinate lots of computers together in elaborate test rigs, sending Internet traffic from one machine to another, or to many others, and measuring how it reacts to network conditions. Naturally this kind of behavior varies a lot depending on what kinds of computers you've got in the test harness. Generally I use FreeBSD, because I've found it to stand up the best under heavy load; Linux can be tuned to sustain similar punishment, but FreeBSD requires less work to get it to a higher level of performance. For the clients on the other end of the tests, I also use FreeBSD or Linux, but just as often -- for instance, when it's necessary to test the behavior of certain consumer network applications -- I use Windows or a Mac.

 

If there's anything "amazing" I can say I've seen, it's the absolutely surreal sight of a Windows machine with two monitors, showing the "Press Ctrl+Alt+Del to log in" screen. The dialog box was positioned exactly in the center of the two monitors, straddling the seam, apparently thinking the two monitors were actually one big unbroken screen. This is just one example of the reasons why I adhere to the Mac platform for getting useful work done; that, and the fact that every time I try to install a copy of Windows 2000 on any lab machine anywhere, it costs me an average of four wasted days, tracking down compatible hardware, getting the CD-ROM to boot, installing drivers, and overcoming the amazing array of obstacles that seem to affect only me. Now, I don't mean to recommend that all companies should switch to Macs; that's a fool's errand, tilting at windmills, and would in all likelihood do more damage than good. But the Mac users in my company all know, because they've experienced both sides of the coin, what benefits are to be had by doing their primary work on a Mac. It has its drawbacks, but they pale next to the concrete benefits we enjoy.

 

Q: Can you detail your current work and favorite projects?

 

A: Nominally, my job is to build and execute test suites for my company's line of network management products. But this is a lot more than simply writing down a list of commands to type into the product and see what comes back. It involves writing a lot of code of my own, in Perl and Python as well as other languages, and building test tools to simulate real user environments so the testing can be automated.

 

But what I really find rewarding is writing architectural tools for the whole company to use. I wrote our project management database, for example, and our test-plan tracking system. I also wrote a document archival system and a general status clearing-house site for our Engineering department. The lessons I learned from this all had to do with user-interface, and this is where the reawakening of my interest in Apple really comes from. User-interface is difficult stuff. In designing a system for the entire company to use, not just engineers, you have to think about how a whole variety of people are going to want to use an application, many of whom aren't technically inclined at all. You have to make tough decisions about how the program will be designed, what controls and choices should be made available, how things should be worded, what the workflow should look like, and how to engineer the users' experience so they will want to use the system, of their own accord, instead of forcing them to use it against their will. I've learned plenty through trial and error in these projects, and I now have the utmost respect for Apple and its software designers for putting so much of this hard work so high on their list of priorities.

 

Computers, after all, to most users are really nothing but the interface. "The interface is the computer," as Sun might have said some years ago. The engineer's job is to rig the back-end code in the computer so the user never has to know what's really going on, which frees him or her up to accomplish tasks that would have been impossible if understanding the inner workings of the computer itself were a prerequisite to getting results. That's the philosophy that Apple has internalized, and it's something for which I have a great deal of regard. Apple literally wrote the book on user-interface design, and they haven't lost their touch. Quite the contrary -- they've freshened and evolved more in the last few years than at any time since the days of the first Mac.

 

Q: What attracts you to FreeBSD?

 

A: This is often a loaded question, especially if asked by a Linux fan! But really the question almost always has to be understood in the context of the Linux-dominated open-source world we now live in. It's really caught a lot of people by surprise, for example, that Linux has risen to such high standing, with corporate backers like IBM driving development and adoption, and with Red Hat going to a commercial model that belies its free-lunch roots. To a lot of people, Linux and open-source software are synonymous.

 

FreeBSD, though, is both like and unlike Linux. It's an operating system founded on similar ideals of community development, but its model for that development is subtly but importantly different. Linux operates primarily using the GPL, or General Public License, which dictates that any code under its terms can be modified for commercial or public use-- as long as the author of the new code releases it back to the open-source community. As you might imagine, not many companies are willing to publish the code for their flagship products, so they shy away from GPL software. But FreeBSD's BSD license is different in that it allows commercial development but doesn't stipulate that the new code must also be made open-source; this makes it a lot more business-friendly. It's why Apple chose FreeBSD as the foundation for most of its UNIX layer; it keeps them from having to be bound by the ideology of the GPL.

 

The development philosophy of FreeBSD is also different in that it involves a small cadre of core developers who check in new code changes submitted from the field, rather than the hundreds or thousands of individual developers, and dozens of different distributions, of Linux. The Linux world is splintered into all these distributions, each of which is subtly different in its architecture, and divided from the kernel which is under the control of Linus Torvalds. If you're going to get into Linux, you generally have to pick a distribution and pledge your soul to it, and hope it's one of the ones that shoulders its way to the forefront and stays current. But FreeBSD is a complete operating system, all under the same central control, and that makes its architecture immensely more predictable. Sometimes FreeBSD lags behind Linux in new technology adoption, but many large-scale hosting companies find that an acceptable trade-off if it means better stability and more business-friendly licensing terms.

 

Q: What are your views on the open source movement?

 

A: I've always believed in it quite strongly. However, I'm not one of those people who think the whole world should be open-source. There's a place for open-source software, and there's a place for closed-source software. It all depends on what kind of applications you're talking about.

 

If what you want is server software, open-source is a fine way to go. Server software is patently designed for a certain purpose: it has to serve data according to a published spec, and it should be subject to peer review and rapid deployment of fixes in response to security issues. User-interface isn't usually much of an issue, because server software is generally used by highly technical people who don't need much in the way of polished interfaces -- they appreciate efficiency, but they can work around a byzantine design; it's far more important that the application be complete and predictable in its performance. For instance, the Apache Web server is a perfect example of what open-source software is meant for: it's small, efficient, flexible, complete, and accessible freely to anyone who wants to use it. The MySQL and PostgreSQL databases are also great illustrations of this philosophy at work: the question is always "Does it do the right thing?" rather than "Is it easy to use?" When there's an easily available goal for the software to meet, the open-source model is a fine way to work towards it.

 

However, when it comes to desktop software, open-source often falls flat. This is because in desktop applications, user interface is king. There's seldom an agreed-upon spec for what any given consumer application should do; rather, the goal is to allow the user to perform some task with a minimum of effort or technical know-how. For example, iMovie and iDVD are applications that stood a very poor chance of being developed first by the open-source community. They require licensing of cutting-edge transport technologies like FireWire, and support for the best and newest video equipment. They need heavy optimization in the back-end to ensure that the application runs smoothly and predictably. And most importantly, they've got to have a strong central vision directing the design of the user interface, conducting user trials, decreeing what should go where, and figuring out what's the best way to enable the user to accomplish tasks. Open-source projects seldom have this crucial central vision; instead, what you get in the open-source world are thousands of mavericks, each with his or her own visions for how the software should work, and often unwilling to bend to someone else's vision. (What kind of person tends to be attracted to Linux over Windows, after all?) This is why the Linux and FreeBSD desktops careen between the Gnome and KDE windowing systems, to say nothing of Enlightenment and the lamented Nautilus; every time someone disagrees with the direction of an open-source project, you get a new splinter group operating under a different unifying vision. Needless to say, this gets nowhere fast. This, more than any other reason, is why Linux is gaining little traction on the desktop, except for engineers who like to tinker with their computers anyway.

 

Q: What are the best features in Mac OS X Panther?

 

A: 1) Exposé, without a doubt. For years, even decades, Microsoft and Apple have been trying to come up with the perfect solution for finding the window you're looking for on your desktop. Windows 95 gave us the taskbar at the bottom of the screen, to which you minimize windows; the Mac at the same time had WindowShade, which rolled a window up into its own title bar. But the taskbar meant you had to move your mouse to the bottom of the screen to get a window back; with WindowShade, you didn't have to move your mouse to see behind a window, but you ended up with all these title bars floating around the screen. Then Mac OS X gave us the Dock and its own minimize effects, and Windows XP coalesced taskbar buttons based on application. But all these were imperfect solutions until Exposé, which takes advantage of the speed of modern computer hardware and the Quartz engine to shrink windows in real-time and tile them across the screen, at the press of a button, so you can visually select the window you want. It's one of those ideas that's so obvious in hindsight it's hard to imagine nobody thought of it before; now its time has come.

2) iDisk local synchronization. Apple's been trying for years to move toward a model where if you have multiple Macs, your productivity reflects more than the sum of your individual computers. Panther turns iDisk into a sort of virtual backpack; you can toss files into it, as quickly as though it were a local disk, and then head to work or off on the road. When you open up your laptop or sit down at your work computer, the files you put on your iDisk are there at your fingertips. No more mailing documents back and forth, or carrying CD-Rs between home and work. It's all there, without a thought wasted.

3) Fast User Switching. Windows XP actually implemented this first, but Apple's version is way cooler. You have to see the transition effect to believe it. But the functionality is more important than the eye-candy; it means there's no more pain in using the computer's multi-user nature to its fullest extent, sharing it among family members or classmates or co-workers with no concern for privacy or for wasting time logging in and out. Now there's more incentive to use one account per person, as the system was designed.

4) iChat is greatly enhanced now, with no-brainer audio and video chat capabilities built-in. Apple has integrated iChat with your Address Book, and Address Book with Mail, so you can fire up a chat with anyone else who happens to be online straight from a Mail message or an Address Book lookup. Video is also absurdly easy; just plug in a FireWire camera, and iChat takes it from there.

5) iSync isn't new in Panther, but it's still very important. It goes along with the iDisk feature I mentioned earlier. If you add a bookmark in Safari, or a contact card in Address Book, iSync propagates those changes to your .Mac account and from there to all your other Macs. Just like your local iDisk, your contacts and bookmarks are all available at all times, no matter which computer you're using.

6) Safari is Apple's Web browser, only a year old now, but rock-solid and almost 100% compatible with de facto and de jure Web standards; it's built into the operating system, much like Internet Explorer on Windows, using a global Web layout engine. For instance, Mail now uses the same HTML rendering libraries as Safari itself. Apple's decision to write their own Web browser is well-advised, since Microsoft has lately been quietly dropping support for many of their Mac products, such as Internet Explorer. Whether this is a cause or an effect of Apple's increasing devotion to application development is an open question, but it's certainly good that Apple is cutting its dependence on Microsoft products. Office is about all that's left.

7) FileVault is an encryption scheme for your hard disk, account by account. The idea is that you can encrypt your Home folder's contents using a password only you (or your administrator) know; then, if your laptop gets stolen, even if the thief yanks the hard drive out, your data is safe from his prying eyes. This is a big step toward legitimacy of the Mac in the high-powered business world, where PowerBooks are selling like hotcakes because of the cool factor of their hardware. Now the software matches up.

8) The Finder has been redesigned to be more user-centric, opening new windows showing your Home folder rather than the top level of the computer. This helps ease the transition for newcomers to the Mac as well as to people familiar with Mac OS 9. Apple has also, finally, put color labels back into the system-- it's an indispensable feature for authors in particular! I spent the whole time writing the first FreeBSD book wishing I could mark the completed chapters by turning them green like I always could on the old Mac OS.

 

Q: Sell us on your new book—why this one and not others?

 

A: The "In a Snap" series by Sams, of which my book is one of the first members, is designed around a task-oriented structure, rather than the traditional straight prose layout that most books use. If you take almost any computer book down off the shelf and flip through it, you'll find lots of chapters covering material divided up by conceptual area; but you won't find an easy way to simply dive in at any random point and get something done right off the bat. That's the idea behind the "In a Snap" series. Instead of chapters, the primary element of organization in the book is the task; you find the name of the task you want to accomplish, such as "Burn a CD" or "Set Up Networking," and it gives you a step-by-step, fully illustrated walkthrough of the task. If there are prerequisite tasks you should complete first, it refers you to them; if there are other related tasks that you might want to try afterwards, it points those out too. "Mac OS X Panther In a Snap" is designed to help the reader get things done immediately, without having to study the whole design philosophy of the operating system before anything makes sense. It's a how-to guide, in other words, not a textbook. I think this will really resonate with readers, particularly those who aren't necessarily beginners with computers, but who don't want to wade through endless explanatory chapters before finding an obscure and incomplete mention of the function they want to use.

 

Q: Can you give us your top five tips from the book?

 

A: 1) When you're using multiple user accounts (or multiple Macs), you can send files to another user's account using their Drop Box folder, inside their Public folder. This works just like a real drop box-- you can put files into it, but you can't see inside it. Only the folder's owner can open it up and retrieve its contents.

2) Enable and use the Keyboard Viewer palette (it's the same thing as the old Key Caps utility) and the Character Viewer palette; enable them in the International Preferences. They let you see how to create special accented characters using the Option key, and also to hunt down and insert even more obscure characters such as letters from other languages.

3) To change the default application that all files of a certain type will open in, do a "Get Info" on a file of that type and select a new application in the "Open with" section of the Info window. Click "Change All" to apply the new setting to all such files.

4) Panther lets you take any printable item and fax it instead, treating a fax as a remote printer. Just click "Fax" in the Print dialog, enter the fax number, and Panther takes care of the rest.

5) A tip for use throughout the operating system is: Get a .Mac account! Don't laugh; it's actually really integral to many of Panther's new features, like iDisk, iSync, and the iLife apps. It's $100 per year, but it's money well spent if you have more than one Mac.

 

Q: Can you share your top five tips about FreeBSD?

 

A: 1) Synchronize your sources! Running a UNIX system means being constantly vigilant for security patches; if you sync your sources nightly, applying a new patch is only a few minutes' work, and may not even require a reboot.

2) Make sure to add yourself to the "wheel" group before you lock your computer in a co-location facility! Otherwise you won't be able to assume "root" (super-user) capabilities, and you've got a lot of driving to do.

3) Always use the ports collection to install software, and keep it current (using CVSup). The ports give you the satisfaction of compiling your own software for your unique setup, while providing comprehensive package management.

4) Don't get hung up on uptime! It's fun to brag about a computer that's been running uninterrupted for over a year; but show me a machine with 350-day uptime, and I'll show you a machine with unpatched security holes.

5) No matter how high- or low-profile your FreeBSD machine is, pick a security profile and stick with it. Decide how much you trust your users, and don't allow them any more leeway in the system than is absolutely necessary. Don't be afraid to tighten up your security model as your system grows over time!

 

Q: Do you have any humorous stories to share?

 

A: In the last six months, I can count five separate friends who have all bought new 12-inch PowerBooks. For several, it was their first Mac they ever owned. One of them, a friend who lives near where I work, bought a PowerBook that he uses by hooking it up to his large 20-inch CRT monitor at home. I showed up for the Great Unpacking, the ritual that accompanies any new Mac purchase, and supervised as he turned it on and set it up. I gave him about a two-hour-long tutorial, showing him all the customizations possible and showing him where to go to do this and that. Then I left, expecting to have to come back to show him the same things again; after all, who can absorb so much information in one session?

 

Imagine my surprise when, four days later, I visited again to find that he had set up custom TCP/IP locations, rotating background images on both screens, and a whole set of new applications he'd installed and put into the Dock. He'd apparently internalized almost everything I told him, and found out a lot of new stuff on his own. However, he had called me over to help with a problem: "My Mac won't shut down!" He said that when he told the system to shut down, it only beeped at him. Evidently his brand-new Mac was already misbehaving, just like his old Windows machine; I knew he'd become disillusioned with a lengthy troubleshooting session and conclude that the Mac is no better than his old PC. So I arrived at his apartment, ready to do battle, to do whatever was necessary to restore working order. I sat down at his computer and immediately saw the problem: he had a file-picker window open, choosing a desktop picture in the System Preferences. This blocks System Preferences from quitting, and the system from shutting down. I clicked "Cancel," the sheet went away, and I shut down the system with one more click.

 

He's now more convinced than ever that he made the right decision. I didn't even charge him for my expert services.

 

Q: What are the five most important Apple and Open Source trends to watch, and please provide some recommendations?

 

A: 1) Apple is rapidly becoming the most widely respected UNIX vendor in the market, much to the astonishment of the pundits; go to any LinuxWorld Expo and count the PowerBooks. Apple has already committed itself to many high-profile open-source projects such as the KHTML code base benefiting from Apple's work on Safari. Look for increasing dedication to the open-source world on Apple's part in coming months, including tighter integration of Linux technologies into Mac OS X.

2) Microsoft has gone squarely on the offensive against Linux and UNIX, enlisting corporate partners such as Unisys (sponsor of the anti-UNIX "We Have the Way Out" site, which it was quickly revealed was originally running on a FreeBSD server), and donating millions to the poisonous SCO, which is now nothing more than a delaying action for SCO's executives to pocket vested stock options, and a front for lawyers attempting to bleed the Linux community of goodwill and money. It's backfiring, though, and as SCO gradually goes down in flames, Microsoft's role in enabling this power play will be made apparent.

3) Linux on the desktop will make some high-profile inroads in coming months, with major companies pledging to run KDE or Gnome desktop environments (or even Lindows, the Linux-based Windows emulator, now that it has achieved firm legal standing) on every machine from Engineering to Marketing to the front desk. This won't last long, though, as the companies in question discover just how much more important application availability is than ideological purity.

4) Apple is moving squarely upmarket, into the academic and scientific space with its Xserve rack-mount units and clustering options, and into the corporate enterprise space with high-end technologies such as FileVault and built-in RAID capabilities. Look for Apple to continue these movements with still greater commitments in these fields, such as technologies to create massive multiprocessing server farms (an embryonic project called "Xgrid" is running already) and centralized login management similar to Windows' "domain" system.

5) On the CPU front, keep an eye on the G5 and its successors. Apple and IBM are already preparing for the release of the PowerPC 970's sequel, which some report is called the PPC 976 (or G5 FX), with a smaller die size and higher clock rate than the existing G5. Intel's Prescott chip has entered the market with disappointing initial performance results and future prospects (its extremely long instruction pipeline means high clock rates are possible, but at the expense of poorer heat dissipation and more damaging branch misprediction "bubbles"), and it seems as though the G5 line stands to advance a lead in the CPU speed race. The next year or two's battle will be fought between Apple/IBM and AMD, rather than between Intel and Apple or even Intel and AMD.

 

Q: What are your top recommended resources?

 

A: 1) Ars Technica (http://www.arstechnica.com), the recognized authority for hardware and software analysis on all the latest technologies.

2) VersionTracker (http://www.versiontracker.com), the #1 clearing-house for Mac shareware; indispensable for any Mac user.

3) MacSurfer (http://www.macsurfer.com), the most comprehensive daily list of Mac-related news links.

4) MacInTouch (http://www.macintouch.com), the place to go for discussion of Mac hardware and software troubleshooting and tracking of reported problems.

5) Slashdot (http://www.slashdot.org, and its Apple subsection, http://apple.slashdot.org), the best place to go for technology news in general.

 

Q: What kind of computer setup do you have?

 

A: I have a dual 2 GHz Power Mac G5, bought as soon as it was announced. It replaced my aging 450 MHz G4, and I've never been so happy. I also have a flat-screen iMac at work, and an iBook that I use in between and on the road. I also have a home network with a Linux and a FreeBSD server, which I use to provide local mail delivery and DNS service for the home as well as other sites I run.

 

Q: If you were doing this interview, what three questions would you ask of someone in your position and what would be your answers?

 

A: Q1: How did you get into the business of writing technical books?

A1: In my case, it was the recommendation of one of the users on my main FreeBSD system. Michael Urban was the contracted author for "FreeBSD Unleashed," and when he realized that he wouldn't be able to tackle the whole project on his own, he approached me as the administrator of what seemed to be a well-run FreeBSD system and asked if I'd be interested in co-authoring it. I'd never done such a thing before, but I like to live dangerously, I suppose. The resulting few years have been both exhausting and exhilarating, and "Mac OS X Panther In a Snap" is my first solo authorship. I'm very pleased with how this new career is going.

 

Q2: How can you be both a fan of the most austere, difficult-to-use operating system in the world (UNIX) and the simplest, ostensibly most user-friendly platform (the Mac)? Aren't these diametrically opposite philosophies of computing?

A2: Yes, but there's no contradiction in my adhering to both. I think it's a fallacy that one single operating system can serve all the needs of all computing in the world. Some operating systems are simply better for certain tasks than others. For instance, UNIX's strength is in its scriptability, its remote access, its no-nonsense austerity, its robustness, its ease of tinkering for maximum performance-- all things that are severely lacking in a desktop platform like the Mac or Windows. But those features are what UNIX users need a computer for. They don't need the features that make the Mac or Windows great, but that are lacking from UNIX, such as user-friendliness, massive consumer software availability, limited configurability, and so on. You'd never try to run a massively multi-processor weather simulation on Windows, just as you'd never try to teach your grandmother how to use UNIX for e-mail or digital music. The tragedy is that many people are convinced that UNIX can be made into a suitable desktop operating system, while others are trying desperately to turn Windows into a top-end server platform. Neither is designed or suited for such a role, nor should be forced into it.

 

Mac OS X, however, is an interesting synthesis: a consumer desktop operating system designed on top of a top-end server-class platform. If Apple wishes to run Mac OS X in the same market space as traditional UNIX brands, while at the same time being accessible on the consumer level, they are uniquely positioned to succeed where nobody has done so to date.

 

Q3: Why put all this effort into stumping for products from Apple? Hasn't the Mac been relegated to the dustbin of history by the natural selection of Windows by the consumer operating system market?

A3: People have been confidently predicting the death of Apple for over fifteen years now. True, many of the usual criticisms hold: Apple computers are more expensive than Windows PCs; they have less software available; there's less of a support network, both at home and in the workplace; Bill Gates may be evil, but Steve Jobs is crazy as a loon; yes, these are all valid concerns. However, it can hardly be denied that Apple has been making a tremendous splash in the computer market, far disproportionate to its share of the field, ever since Jobs returned to the company in 1997. Back then, Apple was uninteresting; its last great idea, the Newton, was floundering for lack of a killer app, and most people viewed the Mac as a has-been platform. But nowadays, everywhere you look on the street you see iPod earbuds. Macs in their highly recognizable bodies are all over movies and TV shows. Apple leads the digital-music legitimacy race with the iTunes Music Store, catching the entire rest of the industry flat-footed. Now the G5 is a genuine contender for the performance crown, and the third fastest supercomputer in the world is a bunch of Macs in a lab at Virginia Tech. Apple retail stores are crowding out Gap outlets in fashionable malls, with each new store drawing hundreds, even thousands, of attendees at its grand opening. No company has had anything like this kind of vibrant energy associated with it since the early days of the computer revolution, and Apple's poised to ride the crest of all the hottest waves in the tech biz, from open-source code to digital media to centralized computer management, and all under the original mind that directed Apple in its first formative years. We're now seeing what kind of energy Apple could have had all this time if only Jobs hadn't been forced out in 1986; just imagine where the Mac would be today if the 90's had been anything like this decade has turned out already to be.

 

Q: Brian, we appreciate the time you spent in doing this interview—thank you!

 

A: It's been a real pleasure. Thank you for giving me this opportunity!

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