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September 1, 1998 |, San Francisco | Issue #001

Travelling Back in Time

Steve with the iMac, courtesy of AppleIt's a pathetic truism: The best technology usually loses. Listening to Steve Jobs' keynote at the Seybold publishing conference today was like travelling back in time.

Boom, it was 1990. Steve had a new company, NeXT Computer Inc., that was revolutionizing publishing. His slick black boxes were an organic evolution of the Macintosh publishing platform, but with a far sturdier operating system, an elegant interface, and a high-impact high-productivity programming environment.

While Macintosh systems relied on printers for Postscript imaging, NeXT computers used Display Postscript, a powerful imaging system that controlled both printer output and the screen display. While Macintosh computers froze during file copies, the NeXTs had pre-emptive multi-tasking, allowing them to run several applications, even big file copies, at the same time. Programmers were making outrageous advances with their NeXTs, especially in the area of publishing: Folks like Tim Berners-Lee, who at the time was devising a nice little hypertext system he called the World Wide Web.

If I had projected progress in publishing technology, say, from Seybold 1990 to Seybold 1998, I might have imagined photorealistic 3D displays, fiber-optic networking, powerful built-in workgroup capabilities, automated AI publication builders, digital paper, etc.

Fast forward to today. What do we have? Well, Steve had good news about Apple's fiscal health, its simplified product plan, and its renewed marketing push. And true to form, he had a great new computer: the low-end consumer iMac box. But there he was, demonstrating the long-toothed Mac OS's file copying capabilities! A problem he had solved with better technology over eight years ago!! Steve also did an AppleScript demo. While it was cool to watch scripts control apps like Photoshop, I couldn't help but think of the utility of shell scripts, a feature of Unix for over 20 years. Finally, representative from Adobe got on stage and demo'd an upcoming page layout program ("K2") that could do Display Postscript-like effects. There it was — the old NeXT technology (look ma, WYSIWYG!) reinvented, re-launched, and rolled out again without a hint of irony. K2 is cool ("Accurate to a millionth of a point"), but timely?

Apple bought NeXT and all its technology in 1997. At any point in the last year, Apple could have released the wonderful cross-platform NeXTSTEP/Openstep/Rhapsody technology and re-launched a radically improved line of awesome publishing machines. But like I said, the best technology usually loses. There are very sane and good reasons why Steve and the team at Apple stuck Rhapsody in a back room like a crazy uncle. But from this user's point-of-view, it's difficult to assimilate to mediocrity once you've seen the best. Steve described plans for Mac OS X, a combination of the Mac OS and Rhapsody/NeXTSTEP that will be available over a year from now, maybe later.

There we'll be, at Seybold 2000, whilst Steve rolls out the first breakthrough Mac OS X/NeXT-based publishing machines. I'll probably buy one, even if Steve does demo how well the machine copies files.

-- Seth Ross

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