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Cuckoo for Cocoa: an interview with Mac OS X-only developer OAAI

by Porruka, June 25, 2001

OAAI (M. Onyschuk and Associates Inc.) is a former NeXT development house now working exclusively on the Mac OS X platform. In a recent interview with MacEdition, Mark Onyschuk, President of OAAI, discussed the advantages of creating software for Mac OS X and OAAI’s latest Cocoa-based product, GlyphiX.

1. What is OAAI and how long has it been around?

OAAI was founded in 1993 to build commercial software for the then-market-leading developer of black, magnesium, cube-shaped computers – NeXT Computer Inc. While our business plan didn’t originally include an eight-year delay in achieving our goal, we’ve lived an incredibly interesting and rewarding business life in the interim.

We’ve worked with Wall Street brokerages building futures and options trading systems, biotech firms designing clinical systems for AIDS treatment, hospitals coordinating cancer research through the Web, and large corporate customers beginning to sell on the Web.

Despite the delay, we never lost our focus on commercial software, and we’re happy to be here with Mac OS X!

2. You’re a small company with limited resources. What is a compelling reason to spend those resources on Mac OS X development?

We’re small, yes, but we’re in possession of the software equivalent of tactical nuclear weapons – Apple’s new Cocoa development environment. Mac OS X absolutely turns the software development equation on its head! With Mac OS X, a modest company like ours can challenge a Microsoft and their legion of programmers, and at the end of the day come up with a product that’s plainly better – plainly easier to use.

That’s good for us, but I think that it’s even better for everyone else in the world. Apple is changing the rules for software development, and it’s about time! We’ve suffered long enough with byzantine office products that work poorly with one another, and lock people into using a single vendor’s apps, for better or for worse.

3. Was Carbon ever an option for your development for any of your applications? Why or why not?

For us, Carbon wasn’t ever really an option as a primary platform for software development. We’re Cocoa specialists – we’ve been working with Cocoa and its predecessors since 1993, when we formed the company.

But that said, Carbon in our eyes is critically important to Mac OS X. Rome was not built in a day and neither was Photoshop. We rely on these products as much as our customers do, and getting them onto Mac OS X has to be Apple’s priority. Carbon solves this problem.

4. What are some of the products your company has developed? How has your NeXT history (and Mac OS X currency) affected your choice of projects?

We’ve worked on several projects in the Mac OS X field, as well as countless others in the Web space or, earlier, in the corporate intranet space. Our first product for the Mac OS X family of operating systems was GlyphiX 1.0. We shipped the product in 1998 back when Rhapsody (Apple’s codename for their new server operating system) was supposed to be the future of the Mac OS.

Shortly after Apple announced Mac OS X, we were contacted by Scott Anguish at Stepwise.com about producing a Web site to track Mac OS X software much in the same way VersionTracker does today (at that time, VersionTracker didn’t track OS X software). We collaborated and the result was Softrak. We wanted to contribute to the community and Softrak was our second venture into the Mac OS X world.

Prior to that, we’d developed a number of systems – some public, including the GE CycleConnect B2B system (which won a Canadian Information Productivity Award in 1999) and others private to our customers. I won’t bore you with the details of some of these.

5. Your most recent application is GlyphiX, a drawing app in the same space as Visio, OmniGraffle and ConceptDraw. Tell us a bit about GlyphiX and why it’s different from these other apps.

Apple has been urging us for the past four years to Think Different, so when we sat down to design GlyphiX 2, we decided to start with a clean slate and rethink the product category.

Today’s diagramming software is difficult to use. Most products feature complicated interfaces with hundreds of toolbars, buttons and panels that are meant to simplify drawing but instead bury it in a heap of windows and widgets. Further, most diagramming packages just aren’t live. Drag a shape from one side of your document to the other and at best you’ll see a box representing the shape you’re dragging. Connections don’t follow along and the shape itself isn’t redrawn until you let go of the mouse. It’s a bit like playing Russian roulette – will my diagram look the way I want it to when I let go of the mouse? Often it doesn’t and Command-Z becomes a good friend.

With GlyphiX, we took a different approach:

We started with a user interface that’s drag-and-drop everything – from shapes to styles. If you can drag-and-drop, you can use GlyphiX. We then took the new Mac OS X column view and used it to present drawing styles in an interface that eliminates dozens of buttons, panels and widgets. And with GlyphiX, all drawing is live – it’s WYSIWYG in real time.

6. The development process for GlyphiX took significant advantage of the Cocoa environment. What has that specifically meant to this product?

Cocoa helped us most by letting us build an application that’s manageable in size. Every software developer in the company understands the entire GlyphiX codebase from start to finish.

This helps us because it allows us to quickly adapt the program to our users’ needs. Concrete example: We’re doing a point release of GlyphiX next week that adds template documents and a number of other features our users have recently asked us for. We can make the change and deliver it in weeks rather than months, because GlyphiX is manageable.

7. If someone were interested in learning more about Cocoa and the tools to develop for it, what would be a good starting point?

A great place to start is the Apple Mac OS X site – there you’ll find Apple’s own Cocoa documentation as well as links to other great resources – the Stepwise site, OmniGroup’s macosx-dev mailing list and others.

8. Would there be a category of applications where Cocoa development would not be appropriate? Why or why not?

I think that Cocoa covers about 99% of what anyone creating an application for Mac OS X needs, though I imagine that certain products like games might not make much use of the Cocoa frameworks and classes.

9. What do you think the market for Mac OS X-native apps will look like in a year?

Customers have spoken. They’re running Mac OS X and they want native apps. Classic is great, but it’s an environment people want to fall back on as a last resort, not as a first choice. 2001 will be the year when everyone who still wants to be relevant in the Mac OS market will go Mac OS X-native.

10. Do you think there will be significant Cocoa development in the next year from established players in the Mac software space? From newcomers?

I don’t expect established vendors to be looking at Cocoa this year – they’re too busy porting their existing applications to X through Carbon. But after the transition, I expect that some will begin testing the waters with new Cocoa-based products for X.

Newcomers, on the other hand, will be doing lots of work with Cocoa. In fact, even today it’s hard to think of a new Mac OS X product that isn’t developed with Cocoa.

11. Please summarize the advantage you think Cocoa on Mac OS X gives you as a Mac developer.

In a sentence: Speed is everything. If you look at some of the best software out there in the world today, you’ll see that there isn’t much of a secret behind it all. To build great software, start with a good idea, then work like hell. Listen to feedback – update the product. The faster you can work the listen-update cycle, the sooner you can call your product one of the best out there, too.

That’s what we want to do with GlyphiX.

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