Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programmers

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Wednesday, July 8, 2020

So, what’s the plan? Part 1: what WAS the plan?

No CEO dominated a market without a plan, but no market was dominated by following the plan.

— I made this quote up. Let’s say it was Rockefeller or someone.

In Accidental Tech Podcast 385: Temporal Smear, John Siracusa muses on what “the plan” for Apple’s various GUI frameworks might be. In summary, and I hope this is a fair representation, he says that SwiftUI is modern, works everywhere but isn’t fully-featured, UIKit (including Mac Catalyst) is not as modern, not as portable, but has good feature coverage, and AppKit is old, works only on Mac, but is the gold standard for capability in Mac applications.

He compares the situation now with the situation in the first few years of Mac OS X’s existence, when Cocoa (works everywhere, designed in mid-80s, not fully-featured) and Carbon (works everywhere, designed in slightly earlier mid-80s, gold standard for Mac apps) were the two technologies for building Mac software. Clearly “the plan” was to drop Carbon, but Apple couldn’t tell us that, or wouldn’t tell us that, while important partners were still writing software using the library.

This is going to be a two-parter. In part one, I’ll flesh out some more details of the Carbon-to-Cocoa transition to show that it was never this clear-cut. Part two will take this model and apply it to the AppKit-to-SwiftUI transition.

A lot of “the future” in Next-merger-era Apple was based on neither C with Toolbox/Carbon nor Objective-C with OPENSTEP/Yellow Box/Cocoa but on Java. NeXT had only released WebObjects a few months before the merger announcement in December 1996, but around merger time they released WO 3.1 with very limited Java support. A year later, WO 3.5 with full Java Support (on Yellow Box for Windows, anyway). By May 2001, a few weeks after the GM release of Mac OS X 10.0, WebObjects 5 was released and had been completely rewritten in Java.

Meanwhile, Java was also important on the client. A January 1997 joint statement by NeXT and Apple mentions ObjC 0 times, and Java 5 times. Apple released the Mac Run Time for Java on that day, as well as committing to “make both Mac OS and Rhapsody preeminent development and deployment platforms for Java technology”—Rhapsody was the code-name-but-public for NeXT’s OS at Apple.

The statement also says “Apple plans to carry forward key technologies such as OpenDoc”, which clearly didn’t happen, and led to this exchange which is important for this story:

One of the things I’ve always found is that you’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology. You can’t start with the technology and try to figure out where you’re gonna try to sell it. And I’ve made this mistake probably more than anybody else in this room, and I’ve got the scar tissue to prove it.

Notice that the problem here is that Apple told us the plan, did something else, and made a guy with a microphone very unhappy. He’s unhappy not at Gil Amelio for making a promise he couldn’t keep, but at Steve Jobs for doing something different.

OpenDoc didn’t carry on, but Java did. In the Rhapsody developer releases, several apps (including TextEdit, which was sample code in many releases of OpenStep, Rhapsody and Mac OS X) were written in Yellow Box Java. In Mac OS X 10.0 and 10.1, several apps were shipped using Cocoa-Java. Apple successfully made Mac OS and Rhapsody (a single) preeminent development and deployment platform for Java technology.

I do most of my engineering on my PowerBook … it’s got fully-functional, high-end software development tools.

— James Gosling, creator of Java

But while people carried on using Macs, and people carried on using Java, and people carried on using Macs to use Java, few people carried on using Java to make software for Macs. It did happen, but not much. Importantly, tastemakers in the NeXT developer ecosystem who were perfectly happy with Objective-C thank you carried on being perfectly happy with Objective-C, and taught others how to be happy with it too. People turned up to WWDC in t-shirts saying [objc retain];. Important books on learning Cocoa said things like:

The Cocoa frameworks were written in and for Objective-C. If you are going to write Cocoa applications, use Objective-C, C, and C++. Your application will launch faster and take up less memory than if it were written in Java. The quirks of the Java bridge will not get in the way of your development. Also, your project will compile much faster.

If you are going to write Java applications, use Swing. Swing, although not as wonderful as Cocoa, was written from the ground up for Java.

— Aaron Hillegass, Cocoa Programming for Mac OS X

Meanwhile, WebObjects for Java was not going great guns either. It still had customers, but didn’t pick up new customers particularly well. Big companies who wanted to pay for a product with the word Enterprise in the title didn’t really think of Apple as an Enterprise-ish company, when Sun or IBM still had people in suits. By the way, one of Sun’s people in suits was Jonathan Schwartz, who had run a company that made Cocoa applications in Objective-C back in the 1990s. Small customers, who couldn’t afford to use products with Enterprise in the title and who had no access to funding after the dot-bomb, were discovering the open source LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP/Perl) stack.

OK, so that’s Cocoa, what about Carbon? It’s not really the Classic Mac OS Toolbox APIs on Mac OS X, it’s some other APIs that are like those APIs. Carbon was available for both Mac OS 8.1+ (as an add-on library) and Mac OS X. Developers who had classic Mac apps still had to work to “carbonise” their software before it would work on both versions.

It took significant engineering effort to create Carbon, effectively rewriting a lot of Cocoa to depend on an intermediate C layer that could also support the Carbon APIs. Apple did this not because it had been part of their plan all along, but because developers looked at Rhapsody with its Cocoa (ObjC and Java) and its Blue Box VM for “classic” apps and said that they were unhappy and wouldn’t port their applications soon. Remember that “you’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology”, and if your customer experience is “I want to use Eudora, Word, Excel, and Photoshop” then that’s what you give ’em.

With this view, Cocoa and Carbon are actually the same age. Cocoa is OpenStep minus Display PostScript (Quartz 2D/Core Graphics taking its place) and with the changes necessary to be compatible with Carbon. Carbon is some MacOS Toolbox-like things that are adapted to be compatible with Cocoa. Both are new to Mac developers in 2001, and neither is furthering the stated goal of making Mac OS a preeminent development and deployment environment for Java.

To the extent that Apple had a technology roadmap, it couldn’t survive contact with their customers and developers—and it was a good thing that they didn’t try to force it. To the extent that they had a CEO-level plan, it was “make things that people want to buy more than they wanted to buy our 1997 products”, and in 2001 Apple released the technology that would settle them on that path. It was a Carbonised app called iTunes.

posted by Graham at 09:31  

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