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An Introductory Mac OS X Leopard Review: Developer Tools

Among all of the new and improved applications Apple delivers to users in Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard, some of the most important are those that developers can use to build applications of their own. If you're not a hard core programmer, Leopard also offers a variety of more accessible tools: Automator for scripting, DashCode for building widgets, and Quartz Composer for creating audio and visual plugins, screen savers, image filters for iChat and music visualizations for iTunes. Here's the trail Apple's developer tools have followed, and how Apple nearly killed itself several times by not providing adequate tools in the past.

The Early Origins of Apple Developer Tools

In the late 70s, Apple founder Steve Wozniak wrote the original BASIC interpreter for the Apple II. Like most early software, it originally shipped on audio tape and required tedious loading from a data cassette player. Once loaded, users could write their own programs. The ability to write those software programs contributed a lot of value to systems, as the base system couldn't really do anything itself. In 1979 VisiCalc arrived and delivered a the first really practical application for buying a home computer.

Wozniak never got around to delivering support for floating point math in his "Apple BASIC," so the company licensed a BASIC interpreter from a tiny operation from New Mexico called Microsoft. That product was called Applesoft BASIC, and Wozniak's earlier version became known as Integer BASIC.

Microsoft's version was very slow, creating a demand for an additional BASIC compiler, which Microsoft also supplied as a solution to the problem. Relying on Microsoft for its developer tools turned out to be a catastrophic problem for Apple, which signed itself into an eight year contract covering Applesoft Basic.

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Apple's MacBASIC Disaster

As Apple's Macintosh project was beginning to take shape in 1981, the company decided that it should deliver its own programming environment for the Mac rather than again delegating the task away to a third party. Apple feared that outsiders might not "get" the new Mac user interface that it had been investing so much research and development into perfecting.

Microsoft's contract for Applesoft BASIC expired in 1985, just as Apple was preparing to release its own MacBASIC. Sure enough, when Microsoft delivered its own BASIC for the Mac, it used a console interface rather than taking advantage of the Mac's new graphical environment.

After discovering Apple was planning to release its own, superior MacBASIC, Bill Gates was livid. His Applesoft BASIC was destined to be obsolete within a few years, but he also knew Apple was still making most of its profits from Apple II systems. Gates exploited that fact to tie the renewal of the ongoing Applesoft BASIC contract into a deal where Microsoft would buy Apple's MacBASIC for $1 and sandbag it.

Gates also tied in two years of exclusive development of the new Excel for Macintosh but then demanded a perpetual license of Apple's Mac interface for use in Windows 1.0. Apple CEO John Sculley agreed to the deal, and the result was that Apple was again left without control over its own development tools, in addition to now being unable to stop Microsoft from eventually appropriating the entire Mac desktop over the next decade. Two years later, Microsoft ported Excel for Windows and Applesoft became largely obsolete; however, Apple end up stranded with poor development tools from Microsoft while giving away its unique technologies to the company.

Andy Hertzfeld notes in Macintosh Stories: MacBasic that beta versions of MacBASIC—distributed before Microsoft canned it—ended up being widely pirated, and two books on MacBASIC were published and sold well for years after that, despite never being officially released as a commercial product.

Mac vs Lisa in Application Development

While MacBASIC was intended to be a consumer level development tool, Apple also delivered tools geared toward professional developers. These were partly inherited from the Lisa, which had shipped a year prior to the Macintosh with the Lisa Workshop, a complete development environment, albeit based in a text console environment.

Lisa also shipped with a full productivity suite called the Lisa Office System 7/7, which included a the LisaWrite word processor, LisaCalc spreadsheet, LisaGraphs for charting, LisaList for outlines, LisaProject for task scheduling, LisaDraw for art, and LisaTerminal for serial communications.

The original Mac only shipped with MacWrite, MacPaint, MacDraw, MacProject, MacTerminal, and a beta of MacBASIC. It lacked the full Lisa suite, in part because Apple didn't assign the same resources to the smaller Mac team, and in part because it was trying to encourage more third party support, and didn't want to step on the toes of the very developers it was courting. In large part, that again meant catering to and dependence upon Microsoft, which shipped Word and Excel shortly after the Mac's release as its first significant third party applications.

The Mac Toolbox and Human Interface Guidelines

In order to make the Mac easier to program than previous generations of computers such as the Apple II or the IBM PC, Apple included libraries called the Mac Toolbox that made it easier to follow the conventions of the Apple Human Interface Guidelines, and gave applications a lot of common functionality for free.

For example, prior to the Mac every application managed its own printer support; individual word processors came with support files for a specific list of printers. On the Mac, a unified printing interface made installing a printer a system-wide feature that enabled all apps to print using the same dialog box. How everything worked was defined in great detail in "Human Interface Guidelines: The Apple Desktop Interface," (excerpt below) which defined details we now take for granted as obvious.

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Apple's guidelines also defined standard, system-wide key combinations for all applications, so uses didn't need to learn a different set for each application they bought. Standardized key combinations, such as Command + O to open a file, had no equal in the mixed up world of DOS, where every app invented its own key combinations, as noted in How Apple Keyboards Lost a Logo and Windows PCs Gained One. For example, to simply open a file:
  • WordPerfect used the command F7 + 3.
  • WordStar used Ctrl + K + O.
  • Lotus 1-2-3 used / to open the menu, W for Workspace + R for Retrieve.
  • Microsoft Word used Esc to open the menu, T for Transfer + L for Load.

The Macintosh Programmers Workshop and HyperCard

In 1985, Rick Meyers, Jeff Parrish, and Dan Smith began work at Apple for the successor to the Lisa Workshop for the Mac, called the Macintosh Programmers' Workshop. It shipped in late 1986.

MPW (below) supported object-oriented Pascal (and later C, and C++ compilers licensed from Lucid under the name MrC/MrCpp) and a 68k assembler, and shipped with a separate debugging tool. Apple's MPW was priced sky high, well out of the range of hobbyist programmers.

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In order to offer a more accessible development environment, Bill Atkinson, Apple's developer behind QuickDraw, created HyperCard. It made the task of building a scripted presentation easy even for non-technical users. Atkinson insisted that Apple bundle the program for free, and this led to it being widely used and wildly popular from its release in 1987 through the mid 90s.

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In 1991's Mac System 7, AppleScript appeared as a new system service to allow any application to support a scriptable dictionary of actions that could be triggered by an external scripts. AppleScript was derived from the HyperTalk scripting language of HyperCard.

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