Hacking Mac OS X

If you want to know the ins and outs of Mac OS X, talk to the people who spend the most time with it -- the hard-core hackers and coders who descend upon Dearborn, Michigan each year for the MacHack conference. Like all Mac users, those attending MacHack last month are still learning their way around the new operating system. But discovering the finer points of OS X was a major focus at this year's conference.

The verdict? While criticism about the OS was plentiful, questions replaced complaints, demonstrations replaced sarcasm, and patience replaced ire as attendees of the conference worked to learn everything they could about OS X.

Coders' biggest complaints concerned performance and documentation. Developer after developer pointed out how certain items would run slowly, in some cases too slowly, to be a part of a shipping product, they argued. MacHack attendees also criticized the Classic environment for opening too slowly, looking terrible behind the Aqua interface, and running applications too slowly.

Nevertheless, many coders readily conceded that updates made by Apple since the release of OS X have addressed some performance issues. And Apple had a major presence at MacHack, sending more than two dozen representatives to the conference to answer questions, conduct sessions, help coders with hacks and professional products, and take developers' concerns back to Cupertino. Apple also sent four members from technical publications to help developers at the conference.

Even before MacHack began, attendees were asked to comment on their top 100 issues with OS X. After almost two hours, more than 100 comments, questions, and concerns had been documented. Attendees voted on each, with a finalized list submitted to Apple at the end of MacHack.

Apple representatives hope that list -- as well as their heavy presence at MacHack -- will help developers target problem areas and optimize applications' performance in the new OS.

Documentation was another area of concern for MacHack attendees, who repeatedly asked for documentation of one feature or another during the conference. To that end, Apple released the second book in its Inside Mac OS X series about a month ago -- Inside Mac OS X Performance.

Apple intentionally made the performance book the second installment in the series, company representatives said, since it addresses one of the paramount concerns of developers. Mac developers are feverishly at work on OS X-native versions of their products to meet Apple CEO Steve Jobs's forecast that the bulk of applications for the new OS would arrive this summer.

It wouldn't be an OS X discussion without a debate over the Aqua interface. Among dozens of issues, MacHack attendees wanted additional support for function keys, the ability to either customize the Dock or allow third parties to replace the Dock, easier ways to get screen shots, and better support for multiple monitors.

Still, few at MacHack's Hack Show decided to hack OS X's Aqua interface. "You need to know how it works before you can hack it," said one developer, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Apart from OS X, AltiVec was also a topic of conversation at MacHack, thanks to a paper titled Practical AltiVec Strategies presented at the conference by California Institute of Technology professor Dr. Ian Ollmann. Ollmann suggested that AltiVec is a powerful performance-enhancing tool in the G4 processor that is underused because little is known about it. Ollmann went on to outline the general theory of Single Instruction, Multiple Data (SMID) development and how to generally optimize one's application for it.

Ollmann won the best paper at MacHack this year, so perhaps his work will have a significant impact beyond the conference in the form of more AltiVec-enabled applications. After all, the winning hack this year was AltiVec-enabled.

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