Is Apple growing up at last?

Written by David Tebbutt, MacUser Sep 1988 (guess) - scanned

Sometimes I can't help wondering if the non-Apple world is frightened of the Macintosh or just ignorant. They say the most appalling things about the machine and its software, yet I bet that these muck-spreaders are just unwitting participants in a huge game of Chinese whispers, so by the time the message has been passed on four or five times, it becomes grossly exaggerated, if not unrecognisable.

I went to the European Unix User Show last week. None of the show previews mentioned Apple, but since the company had been there last year, I figured this might have been some sort of administrative cock-up. The truth is that Apple had decided not to attend. This gave the knockers a field day and Apple couldn't defend itself. Mention A/UX and the response was at best a smirk and at worst a smear.

Apple's reasons for not going vary according to who you speak to. One source says it's waiting for A/UX release 1.2. Since 1.1 was only announced in March, I find that a difficult one to swallow. Another source says that the company is focussing its energies on application-oriented shows like Electronic Publishing. At this stage of Unix development, I believe a continued presence at this show would have helped Apple - assuming, of course that the knockers are wrong. After all many of the visitors to the Unix show are from the very industry that builds and installs computer solutions. And Apple needs as many friends as it can find in that community.

The show was not totally bereft of Macintoshes, but they were hard to spot. One company that had some on display was TIS, the UK distributor for the MIPS range of RISC-based minicomputers. TIS had its Macintosh IIs connected to a MIPS machine it was using as a file server. I didn't have a stop watch, but can believe claims that Macintosh files can be hoovered up from the server far more quickly than from the Macintosh's integral drive.

I rather naively asked where A/UX fitted in this scheme and was told 'nowhere'. The MIPS machines are Unix boxes which run on EtherNet networks. TIS supplies a product called uShare which enables non-Unix machines like the PC and the Macintosh to connect up and play at being Unix terminals through built-in emulators.

This approach offers a number of advantages. Users can get very fast access to data - a great advantage in graphical applications like CAD or publishing . They can use the MIPS server as a print spooler, which means they can get on with the next job more quickly. A mail server in uShare enables all participants in the network to exchange messages, text and binary files with others, regardless of machine type. But best of all, Macintosh users can continue to use the Mac as a Mac, taking advantage of the MIPS, but only dropping into Unix terminal mode when participating in the company's multiuser applications.

On the first day of the show, the Edinburgh AppleCentre became a value added reseller for TIS, taking on its MIPS machines and uShare software. This AppleCentre specialises in highend publishing systems and thinks nothing of having files of 20MB and upwards for a page of print. It will use the MIPS machine initially as a file server and users won't even be aware they're running under Unix. As far as they're concerned, they'll just have high speed access to massive Macintosh files. It's possible the AppleCentre will offer the MIPS with Unix application software.

Another company that sells uShare is Maxima. It has UK distribution rights for all versions of uShare except that which runs on the MIPS. I looked in vain for Maxima at the Unix show. Little did I know the company was selling itself to P&P, a major distributor. Anyway, I was looking for Maxima to see how it was getting on with the Mac-based LIST range of graphical front ends for Unix and VMS operating systems.

LIST is an Italian company which has produced three front ends, one for DEC's VMS machines, one for Unix host computers and one for Apple's A/UX version of Unix. The Macintosh appears to be running the Finder, even though it is fronting Unix. Icons represent Unix files and complex command lines can be generated using Macintosh-style dialog boxes.

I last saw LIST at the Amsterdam MacWorld Expo a few months ago. I asked what was happening at Apple with regard to a graphical front-end for A/UX. The LIST representative had hoped that Apple would adopt his company's products. Unfortunately for him, Apple had other plans.

Apple has good reasons for wanting to develop its own front end. Its solution will exploit Finder technology, whereas LIST can only emulate it. Apple believes that LIST offers a good product but describes its own efforts as... wait for it... 'Macintisation' of A/UX. This has yet to appear so if you've got Unix and want a Finder-like front end, you know where to go.

Apple is committed to whatever standards users demand and also to the Macintosh way of working. The standards involved are in the operating system, communications and windows/ graphics. Apple's A/UX is based on Unix V release 2.2 with Berkeley, NFS and X Windows extensions. (Don't worry if this doesn't mean much to you. It means that Apple is trying to satisfy its users' requirements by bolting in the goodies they're asking for.) It also conforms to the IEEE and Posix determined standards which you have to match to stand any chance of being accepted in the government and corporate computing communities. Some other companies are already on Unix V release 3.2, but everyone, including Apple, has their eyes on Unix 4.

But this isn't Apple's only bid to appeal to these large organisations. It recently announced a large number of communications products designed to enable Macintosh computers to communicate with a wide range of host machines. Apple is coming up with links to Token Ring networks, 3270 terminal emulation facilities, an X Window display server and MacX25 for hooking up to packet-switched data communications networks (PSDNs). Its Appletalk and EtherNet capabilities have also been significantly enhanced.

Apple reminds me of a teenager who has suddenly matured. At first, you can't believe it. Then you look at the growing evidence. Apple is making a serious play for corporate business and only a fool would pretend otherwise.