Interview with Ken Case, CEO at Omni Group

Omni Group is well known to most Mac users and NeXT ones back in the day. Omni Group today is a MacOSX-only company, writting high quality applications in Cocoa, apps like OmniWeb, OmniGraffle, OmniOutliner and 3D game ports. Today, we talked to its CEO, Ken Case, about the company and its products, Apple’s strategies, Safari and the future.

1. OmniGroup’s best known product is OmniWeb, a modern web browser for OSX. Recently, Apple released Safari, which seems to have already captured the interest of the OSX userbase. What market problems would you think this release from Apple will bring to your product? Is the OSX community big enough for seven browsers, especially after the Safari release?

Ken Case: OmniWeb is a browser which provides a very rich browsing experience, and is a very successful product for us despite free competition from the web industry’s giants, Microsoft and Netscape. OmniWeb’s biggest weakness has been a lack of compatibility with some web pages, and solving this by implementing newer web standards is the focus of our current efforts on OmniWeb.

Safari appears to be a great alternative to Internet Explorer as a free web browser which ships with the operating system. It seems to be
quite fast, small, and easy to use (much like the new 12″ PowerBook), and I’m very glad to see Apple basing their product on standards and
open source technologies.

I don’t really see Safari as competition to OmniWeb: they’re aiming at capturing the entry-level browser user (that currently sticks with the
bundled Internet Explorer), while we sell OmniWeb to those who really want the most efficient, powerful browsing experience possible.

Until we finish our work on newer web standards, we’re our own worst enemy: I don’t believe that other browsers are pulling any of our
customers away from OmniWeb, but that we’re pushing our own customers away from OmniWeb while that work remains incomplete. Fortunately, I think we’ll be there soon!

2. On a similar subject, recently Apple stirred up some controversy online with its release of the new version of Sherlock, which does most of what the popular shareware app Watson does. Do you think that Apple, as the producer of the OS, should also be a major application creator? Do you think that these “iApps” will create problems in the development community and limit their profits in the long run?

Ken Case: Apple is unique among mass-market computer companies in that they
provide a complete integrated solution which includes the hardware, the operating system, and a number of (bundled and unbundled) applications. This allows them to innovate in ways that involve the complete integrated package, rather than being limited to innovation within each level.

This may make them better competition than the average competitor
(because they’re hopefully providing better solutions than
average)–but I don’t see it as fundamentally different from any other
competition from any other source, as long as they make the same
information and API available to third party application developers as
they make available to their own application developers.

3. OmniWeb has its roots to NeXT. How close to NeXT do you find OSX today? Are there features (as a user and developer) that you had on NeXT but you miss on OSX? What are your favorite features on OSX and what features do you think that OSX lacks?

Ken Case: We developed applications for the NeXT platform because we found it was
an incredibly productive development environment for us: it was a
wonderful blending of UNIX with a modern object-oriented toolkit. In
that respect, Mac OS X definitely takes up where NeXT left off: we
have a more modern (and better supported) UNIX, and Cocoa is a
wonderful evolution of the NeXT toolkits. And on top of that we have a
lot of wonderful Macintosh software through Carbon and Classic.

But Mac OS X goes even further than that: we not only have UNIX, and
Cocoa, and Carbon (and the ability to leverage them all from within the
same application), but other great standards like OpenGL, and all
within a new Aqua interface which encourages application designers to
avoid unnecessary complexity within their applications without being
overly restrictive in their simplification, through dynamic elements
like sheets, drawers, and expandable interfaces.

As a developer, though, I do miss one thing from the NeXT heritage:
their Enterprise Objects Framework for OpenStep, which made developing
powerful database applications a dream.

4. Do you have plans to extend OmniWeb’s current HTML engine with better js and CSS compatibility or do you have plans to reuse another HTML engine like WebCore or Gecko? What features will the next version of OmniWeb have? Any
plans for tabbed browsing?

Ken Case: We were extending OmniWeb’s current HTML engine when Apple announced their plans for Safari, but now we’re taking a hard look at their work on KHTML to see whether that might be a good solution for OmniWeb.

We’d looked at Gecko in the past, and portions of it–like the
SpiderMonkey JavaScript engine–are currently used in OmniWeb. But the
design goals for Gecko as a whole didn’t really mesh very well with
OmniWeb: it’s a least-common-denominator operating system solution,
while OmniWeb tries to make the most of our underlying operating system.

We’ve just released OmniWeb 4.2 beta 1 this week, and (in addition to a
number of other enhancements and bug fixes) it includes a ‘Zoomed
Editor’ for entering large amounts of text into forms–it lets you
enter the text in a separate window that you can resize to see as much
or as little of text as you’d like. But 4.2 doesn’t include a new
rendering engine yet, so that remains our biggest weakness at the

For OmniWeb 5.0, we do plan to provide a solution for simultaneously
browsing multiple pages in the same window, and we’re working on some
new browsing innovations. But first things first: before improving
our award-winning interface even more, we’ve really got to fix our
rendering engine.

5. A problem I have personally experienced with all the OSX browsers on my G4 is that scrolling and especially resizing web pages on OSX can be slow and jerky (as opposed to smooth OS9). Why does this happen? What are the purely technical reasons that make scrolling quick and smooth on other platforms but are a problem on OSX for many users?

Ken Case: I think that the big limitations here are that Mac OS X’s Quartz
interface is currently software based (since no hardware exists which
supports things like rendering nice antialiased text), and that the
PowerPC chipset doesn’t have a direct equivalent to the Pentium’s
write-combining mode for video memory regions. If we could render in
hardware (as today’s 3D games do), we wouldn’t need fast write access
to random chunks of video memory; if we had fast non-sequential write
access to video memory, we could probably get away with so much of the
rendering happening in software (as OpenStep/Intel did). But with that
combination, I think we’re limited by the number of pixels we can push
through the hardware whenever we scroll or resize a window.

6. Despite Apple’s Switch campaign, all the recent survey’s I’ve seen agree that Apple has reduced its market share from 5% a few years ago, down to 2.3%-2.5% today. Is OmniGroup thinking of porting or rewriting their applications to other platforms? Is Windows or Linux on any
porting plans or you will stay faithful to the Mac platform?

Ken Case: All of our products are designed specifically for Mac OS X: we love
the combination of Aqua and Cocoa and UNIX, and we don’t have any plans
to port any of our software to any other platforms.

7. Do you think that Apple would make the big jump to AMD Opteron or to plain x86? Do you see something like this happening, does it make sense for Apple and maybe your business?

Ken Case: As you may know, NeXT supported four CPU architecture families:
Motorola 680x0s, Intel 80x86s, HP PA-RISCs, and Sun SPARCs. I’m sure
that Apple is keeping their options open, and will introduce support
for another CPU architecture when the time is right.

For this to happen, of course, they need to wean people away from (the
unportable) Mac OS 9. Since they’ve just introduced hardware which
requires Mac OS X, I think they’re one step closer to the point where
they can make such a move without backlash from the wider Macintosh

8. OmniGroup also ports games to the Mac platform. How is OpenGL performance on the Mac today? How easy is to port 3D games from the PC to the Mac when the latest PC game releases have crazy hardware requirements even for PC standards, while most Mac users still run on Macs with slower graphics adapters and less overall speed than some brand new PCs? If this is not exactly an issue yet, do you believe that porting a “high end” 3D game from the PC in a year from now would be quite a challenge to optimize it in a way that it would run adequately to the Mac?

Ken Case: We have some great graphics cards on the Macintosh now, and potential
OpenGL performance has improved quite a bit with the release of Mac OS
X 10.2. But we’re still working under the handicap of relatively slow
CPUs and memory access, so until that situation changes it will always
be a challenge to make games perform well.

(As for running the latest games on older hardware: well, you can’t
really do that on the PC side either–in fact, that’s pretty much the
only reason I occasionally buy a new PC. So yes, it’s a problem, but
it’s not one which is unique to the Macintosh.)

9. How OmniGraffle 2.x and OmniOutliner 2.x have been selling? I read that in 2001 the company was not profitable. How was 2002? Easier or rougher?

Ken Case: We’ve made a pretty huge transition in our business over the last two years, from making 90% of our revenue from consulting to making 90% of our revenue from our commercial software products, and our boxed
software first appeared on shelves at CompUSA and The Apple Store within the last few months. We’re very happy with the success of our products (the last half of 2002 was definitely much easier than the first half), but it’s still a little early to judge how well they will
succeed (especially in the retail market), and we still have a lot of work ahead of us.

10. Is OmniGroup working on any brand new applications
for OSX or you are working on updating the existing ones?

Ken Case: Our first obligation is to our existing customers, so over the next few months our engineering effort is focused on major updates to our current titles–but once we’ve done that, we certainly do have some new applications planned!


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