72 Hours of MacHack

The biannual Seybold Seminars are for publishers and creative professionals; Apple's yearly Worldwide Developers Conference is for software makers; and the twice-a-year Macworld Expo trade shows are for just about everybody. But for the MacHack conference, only hard-core programmers need attend.

Programmers descend upon Dearborn, Michigan, each year to discuss the language of Mac programming and to unveil their own Macintosh hacks-small programming projects that attendees create to show off their skills. The 16th annual MacHack conference got underway last week, with a keynote address that kicked off at 12:01 a.m. on Thursday.

The keynote may have been the highlight of this year's conference. It brought together seven of the top engineers and programmers who created the Macintosh: Daniel Kottke, Bill Atkinson, Donn Denman, Andy Hertzfeld, Jef Raskin, Caroline Rose, and Randy Wigginton. The nearly six-hour keynote gave the Mac creative team a chance to reminisce about their role in creating the revolutionary computer and gave conference attendees the chance to express their appreciation to the seven speakers.

The keynote panelists weren't there just to discuss the past-they also shared their thoughts on the current state of the Mac, including the debut of Mac OS X. Each panelist agreed that the new operating system looks beautiful, but many expressed misgivings about the Aqua user interface, the lack of documentation, and the OS's implementation.

"The internal improvements of Mac OS X are long overdue, but the UI . . . well, yuck," said Raskin, who initially headed the Mac project at Apple. "Apple has ignored for years all that has been learned about developing UIs. It's unprofessional, incompetent, and it's hurting users."

Hertzfeld, who created large parts of the Mac's system software, was less down on the interface, suggesting that OS X is not yet a mature product and will improve in future iterations. "It's definitely better than Windows," he said.

As for the future, Hertzfeld contended that Apple "needs to pay more than lip service to open source development." Raskin added that it wasn't clear "how Apple can keep going with just new pretty boxes, without a revolution."

"Don't ever count Apple out," said Wigginton, who wrote MacWrite. "But don't expect revolutions from Apple unless their backs are to the wall. Right now, things are pretty fat, but when magazines start counting Apple out, then you'll see something."

The appearance of seven key members of the Mac development team invoked some nostalgia in another MacHack attendee-Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak. In a fireside chat Thursday night, Wozniak recalled tales involving each member of the Mac team, such as giving Wigginton rides to meetings of the Homebrew Computer Club.

Wozniak also shared his thoughts on the state of Apple, giving mixed marks to OS X. "I agree with the writer who said that it is not ready for prime time," he said. "But it came out more beautiful than I thought it could."

Wozniak, who still receives a nominal paycheck from Apple and gets the latest hardware when it's released, expects the company to produce an Apple-branded PDA. "It fits well into Apple's Digital Hub," he said.

Wozniak also got into the spirit of MacHack by offering a hack of his own-a change to the routines of the Trash so that if you drag a disk to it, you are given the option of either ejecting or erasing the disk.

The conference's Hack Show gives attendees a chance to show off their hacks. Attendees vote on the best hacks, which receive honors at the MacHack awards banquet.

Not everyone does a hack. Sometimes, the pressures of late-night keynotes and getting much needed information from sessions, Apple presentations, and representatives can take up almost all of the 72-hour conference.

Nevertheless, many attendees produce creative and beautiful hacks. One of the most interesting hacks at this year's conference was Mac Murrett's Apple Turnover. This hack will invert the screen and begin to rotate it as you work. System performance is not heavily taxed at all, as the hack takes advantage of the G4 processor's AltiVec capabilities to manipulate the screen buffer.

Other notable hacks at the conference included HANS, the Hackable AirPort Network Selector, that tells you via voice notification if any AirPort networks are available, and what their names are. A hack called Password Thief monitors network activity and collects POP passwords and user names. Another hack, Light Sleeper, makes the Apple logo pulse when a new iMac or PowerBook G4 is put to sleep. Sadly, Light Sleeper drains power much more than normal Sleep mode. Another favorite hack was iTunes Dance Dock Plug-in, an iTunes plug-in for Mac OS X that makes the icons in the Dock resize to the music to mimic a graphic equalizer.

One more highlight of the MacHack conference is the Big Apple Session where Apple answers questions about the Mac OS and Mac hardware.

Not surprisingly, OS X was a major topic of discussion during the session, with many attendees telling Apple representatives that the new OS's performance was too slow. Apple's representatives said OS X's performance problems were a known issue and that performance should improve over time as updates are released.

"Apple must put the product out into the wild in order for people to use it and report issues," said Steven Glass, vice president of Mac OS engineering. "Only then can Apple respond to those issues and perfect Mac OS X."

Responding to questions about OS X drivers, Apple representatives said that many drivers need to be provided by third parties, and that Apple cannot track all of them. However, the company says it's working on overall driver improvements. There will be a new printer software development kit in July that may spur a new round of printer drivers. Apple added that the number of CD-R, CD-RW, and DVD devices supported in OS X is growing, and that it expects more in the future.

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