Utilities vendors grapple with OS X

Changes in Apple's forthcoming operating system have developers of Mac system enhancements scrambling to keep up.

Apple Computer Inc.'s forthcoming Mac OS X may change the way Mac users interact with their favorite computer, but it will have an even bigger effect on the companies that develop Mac OS utilities.

Most utilities are designed to address gaps in the host operating system, and many of those weaknesses will be removed when Apple (aapl) releases its new OS. Other vendors have found that changes in Mac OS X won't allow their utilities to work as before; and some say that the recent Developer Release 3 -- coming three months before the new OS is due to ship this summer -- either arrived too late or lacks tools they need to port their applications.

One of the big changes in Mac OS X is that it eliminates system extensions, at least when you're outside the "Classic" environment (also known as Blue Box), which is designed to run current Mac applications.

That situation would seem to sound a death knell for Casady & Greene's Conflict Catcher, a popular utility for identifying extension conflicts. However, Donald Bierdneau, C&G executive vice president for product development, said the changes have not dampened the company's enthusiasm for Mac OS X. "Right now, Conflict Catcher runs fine in the Blue Box (Classic environment) and, although some of its functions are displaced in Carbon, we're confident that we'll find something for it to do in OS X."

Thursby Systems, developer of the Dave cross-platform utility, faces a different challenge. "Our development has really had to wait for the release of DR 3 because that's where kernel-development tools have first appeared," said engineering chief Paul Nelson. "Dave is working in Classic now and will be finalized and ship in January of 2001."

Mike Loftus, vice president of product marketing at Connectix, said the company's engineers are still awaiting development tools from Apple. "It's a little early yet to predict what product we'll be able to ship with the OS X launch," he said. "The tools we need are very sophisticated, like debuggers, and we look forward to their arrival." Connectix products include Virtual PC, a DOS emulator, and Virtual Game Station, which allows Macs to run many Sony PlayStation games.

Developers of Windows-emulation software face an extra challenge because they need to support two new operating systems: Mac OS X and Windows 2000. "It's a double whammy because you have to deal with Mac OS X on the bottom and Windows 2000 on the top," said John Kirsten, president of FWB Software, which purchased Insignia Solutions' SoftWindows and SoftPC last year. "It's a daunting task."

Perhaps not as daunting as the challenge facing CE Software, developer of the QuicKeys macro-creation program. Mark Toland, CE director of engineering, said that Mac OS X disallows patches, a method of intercepting and overriding system calls that the company uses in its utility.

Toland said that Apple's move makes sense "as patches tend to undermine system stability." CE has proposed an alternative using better-behaved hooks, but even if Apple allows their use, "We don't expect to see that support in the 1.0 release of OS X," he said.

Even without patches or hooks, Toland maintained that QuicKeys "works virtually flawlessly in the Blue Box. We are going to have it ship for OS X, although it may not be QuicKeys as we know it today."

Despite the challenges, many utility vendors said they look forward to Mac OS X. David Loomstein, a product manager at Symantec (symc), said he is confident that Norton's virus checker and disk tools will make the transition. His advice to users and developers: "Set aside your fears of the unknown. Apple knows what they need to do, and they're doing it. Though difficult, these times will produce new opportunities for utility developers."


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