Who should be thanked for the return of Mr. Jobs to Apple?

Microsoft is touting its Singularity OS, a fresh, built-from-scratch, non-Windows OS and in the past, Apple tried out similar efforts. But for its next-generation OS, Apple looked outside the company to choose between a built-from-scratch OS and Unix. And then there was Steve Jobs.
Written by David Morgenstern, Contributor

News of Singularity, a non-Windows operating system from Microsoft, sparked my interest in OSes past and present. It got me thumbing though the back issues of MacWEEK for memories of OSes that were built from scratch and now forgotten. But in the research, I found some ironic gold regarding NeXTstep, the foundation of what became Mac OS X, and the return of Steve Jobs to Apple.

Microsoft's "proof-of-concept" Singularity OS was introduced at its annual Research Techfest in Redmond. According to Mary Jo Foley, it's being offered to computer science departments.

Singularity is an operating system and set of related tools and libraries that is developed completely in managed code. Singularity is not based on Windows; it was written from scratch as a proof-of-concept.

“We decided not to build operating systems that are built on technologies that are 30 years old,” said Principal Researcher Galen Hunt.

Ouch. Tough talk for someone inside Microsoft. But my guess is that Hunt is talking about Unix and not just Windows, so the shot may pass muster with the corporate communications dept. on the Redmond campus.

Now, Apple has plenty of experience in the OS research area. Back in the late 1980s, a group of its programmers got together and brainstormed ideas for a new OS, some that could be grafted onto the existing Mac OS core and others that were more difficult, requiring a whole new kernel and OS. The ideas were put on pink and blue cards, with the former being the tougher set. This was the origin of Project Pink, and the Blue Meanies, the team that pushed forward System 7.

In 1992, Apple and IBM (and Motorola) formed an alliance to create a RISC processor, reference hardware for that chip and operating systems that would run on it. Around the time of that deal, Pink and its development team were shipped out to a new Apple-IBM company called Taligent, which was to develop the future Mac OS and replace OS/2 on the IBM side.

We should note that Pink/Taligent was aimed at the next-generation Microsoft OS, also built from scratch, called Cairo. (Remember that?) It was also aimed at NeXT, which offered its NeXTstep-based workstations.

Of course, Taligent's directions and visions were changed on a quarterly basis. And then there were delays upon delays. The system was to offer Personalities, modules that would run Mac OS and OS/2 applications. The object environment used a graphical interface called "People, Places and Things."

And as one might image, there was a bit of a cultural gap between the Apple and IBM coders and marketing execs. Taligent was headed by then IBM exec. Joe Guglielmi, who had been the general manager of marketing and biz dev for the IBM PC.

Then there was the chutzpah. In a MacWEEK story from the 1994 PC Expo in New York, Taligent executives touted the alpha version of the Taligent Application Environment, which would let developers develop apps for OS/2, AIX and HP-UX.

According to Guglielmi, IS managers and independent software vendors need to take a close look at Taligent as their next-generation operating system. "If they think they're going to simply drift from Windows to Chicago, they're wrong," he said.

Right. Big talk for an alpha product. History shows that the ISVs and IT managers did mostly drift to Chicago, the code name for Windows 95.

So, where's the irony already?

In early 1993, NeXT gave up its hardware strategy and sold its workstation designs to Canon. The company, headed by Steve Jobs, would offer its OS and object-oriented application design environment to Intel PCs.

In a guest editorial at the time, Jean-Louis Gassee, the former chief of Apple's product development and worldwide marketing groups, looked at the prospects for NeXT. Gassee had in 1991 started a company called Be Inc. that aimed to create a new OS from scratch. It would be called the BeOS and ran on a multiprocessor machine offered by the company.

Later development work ported BeOS over to the Macintosh. In 1996, Gassee was in serious negotiations with Apple about becoming the next-generation version of the Mac platform. Apple had given up on Taligent and Copland, its later in-house effort.

In the MacWEEK piece, Gassee ran down the challenges to NeXTstep and for Jobs.

Steve Jobs just called it quits in the hardware business, choosing instead to focus on becoming, in his words, the Avis of system software, with "you know who" being Hertz.

It would be premature to count Jobs out after this unpleasantness. We are dealing with a master of persuasion. And there is evidence that this master, freed from his beloved black cube, is eager to play the next round.

Gassee said the enterprise market was looking towards commoditization of hardware and software.

The strategy requires a sharper focus for NeXTstep: custom development of mission-critical networked applications. This skillfully positions NeXT away from the big general-purpose players such as Windows NT, Solaris or Univel. In fact, this is the area where NeXT has encountered some success with information-systems departments anxious to develop applications but unwilling to face the challenges associated with hard-core Mac or Windows applications programming.

It looks good: Play on your strengths, exploit the IBM PC clone momentum instead of fighting it, and stay away from the big guys.

At the bottom of the piece, I found this gold:

An even more sacrilegious thought: Imagine Jobs calling Messrs Sculley and Cannavino and offering NeXTstep as an alternative to Pink. Just in case. Freed from the responsibility of selling boxes (transferred to Canon Inc. after it invested an estimated $220 million in NeXT), almost anything is possible with the newly emancipated Mr. Jobs.

Calling Steve resourceful and persuasive is probably like calling Houdini agile. All of us who are in his debt hope he'll escape the water trap one more time - assuming he realizes there is a difference between a magic show and the computer business.

Holy cow! Could he have imagined that in about 3.5 years from that issue date, Gassee himself would be negotiating with Apple on its next-generation OS?

In 1993, John Sculley was Apple CEO and Jim Cannavino was IBM's chief strategist. Could someone have remembered those words and pointed them out to someone inside Apple who passed on Gassee's smart words about Steve Jobs and NeXT? Or perhaps there was a pile of old issues of MacWEEK in the bathroom outside the board room in Cupertino? It could happen in the days of hardcopy content.

In late 1996, everyone outside CEO Gil Amelio and the cadre in Apple's top executive suite thought BeOS was a done deal. In fact, the drafts of MacWEEK's year-end editorial package and timelines included the "fact" that BeOS would be introduced at the upcoming Macworld Expo in San Francisco.

Even Gassee thought it was a done deal. All that was needed was to move Apple's offer up a few hundred million dollars. But Apple wouldn't budge.

However, Ellen Hancock in the fall was steered over to NeXT and the rest is history. The announcement was made in the weeks before the Expo, which thankfully, left MacWEEK some hours to tear apart the content and art and make it right before the section needed to be sent to the printer. (I was in charge of the package, so I remember well the day.)

Jobs came in and the great reorganization and purges began. And the next-generation of Mac OS with that long-in-the-tooth Unix stuff.

Editorial standards