November 1997
s m u g
by Steve Hawley


I have a theory. Actually, I have quite a few theories, like the one about how the tape player in my friend David's Volvo causes it to rain in Ohio, but those are not salient. No, the theory I will expound upon is the cause of Apple's tortuous demise.

The cause are the numbers 19136 through 19199, inclusive. These numbers represent the opcodes for the instruction Test And Set (TAS) on the Motorola 68000 family of microprocessors. TAS does two things: it reads a byte in memory and checks to see if it is non-zero or negative, then it immediately sets the byte to -127.

The important thing is that these two operations happen in one instruction.

"So what?" I hear you cry. Well, think of it this way: Test And Set is the occupied light and the latch of an airplane john. Normally, you check to see that the light is off before you enter the john, and if it's off, you step in, flip the latch and go about your business. If these actions were separate, the following scenario would be possible: you check the light, step in and before you reach the latch, another passenger checks the light, steps in and flips the latch. Disaster has struck: both of you are in the john, voiding yourselves all over each other.

The hardware designers of the Mac, the same ones who put their autographs on the insides of the case, chose not to put in correct hardware support for TAS.

With TAS it is possible to write a multitasking operating system. Without TAS you end up with programs with the ability to urinate all over each other.

What was worse was that even when Apple had corrected this in hardware, they couldn't correct it in software because of all the legacy machines that wouldn't be able to work with it.

Had Apple chosen to risk alienating customers early on by orphaning early machines, they could've had machines that were full multitasking, more responsive, and more robust.

Now, it is too little and far too late.

I sit and type on a PowerBook 520c. It's a nice little machine, but Apple in its infinite wisdom, committed a much more complicated hardware error so that this machine, like those without TAS, is also dead-ended.

While I can get a hunk of silicon, epoxy and metal which will transform this laptop into a PowerPC based machine, I have to ask myself the question "Is it really worth the money?"

The answer is a resounding "no". This machine, although it is a scant few years old, is on its second back hatch to cover the ports (and this one doesn't close too well); is on its second bezel that covers the microphone and cables to the LCD screen (and this one is breaking in the same way as the last); is missing the hook that latches the case shut (sheared off); is on its third complete formatting of the internal hard drive; has serious stress cracks on the cover near the hinges; and has serious stress cracks at the dividing line between the keyboard and the battery compartment.

I was not a harsh user of this machine. Really.

So a third party, for $500 will sell me a little interface board that will cost me $75 to have a dealer install into a disintegrating case so that ultimately I still can't run the current revision of the operating system from Apple, all because of hardware mistakes.

When people ask me "what kind of computer should I buy?" the answer I usually give is, "the one that runs the software you want." I usually add the side comment, "and if you can arrange it, get your company to buy it for you".

I will certainly follow my own advice if I choose to replace my PowerBook, and because the software I want to run is less frequently available on Macintosh machines, I seriously doubt that I would ever buy a Macintosh again.

  • For want of an instruction, a kernel was lost.
  • For want of a kernel, an operating system was lost.
  • For want of an operating system, an application was lost.
  • For want of an application, a machine was lost.
  • For want of a machine, a customer was lost.


Steve Hawley, formerly a software developer for the Macintosh since 1984, is currently a software developer for PCs.


in the junk drawer:

October 1997
September 1997
August 1997
July 1997
June 1997
May 1997
April 1997
March 1997
February 1997
January 1997

and such
and such

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