OS X for the Masses

By Charles Haddad After spending hours prowling the stalls at the 2001 Macworld trade show in New York, I now see the light -- a bright aqua one, in fact. And it glows bright with the future of OS X. Apple's newest operating system is ready for the average Mac user -- almost. I'd still wait until September to jump operating systems.

That's when Apple is scheduled to release 10.1, its first major upgrade to OS X. From what I saw at Macworld, this is really the first version ready for the Mac masses. It's fast, smooth, and stable. Applications launch quickly and windows scroll and resize in real time. This version supports most printers, drives, scanners, and Internet protocols.

It's clear that OS X isn't the only thing that has evolved, however. Apple has, too. It used to be that talking to the company, whether you were a user or a developer, was like trying to converse with a brick wall. No more, at least as far as OS X is concerned. The change began in March, when Apple floated a trial version of its new operating system. More than 50,000 users sent back complaints and suggestions. And -- surprise, surprise -- Apple listened.

ADDING UP. Users told Apple that they liked the idea of OS X's new dock feature, an icon command strip at the bottom of the screen, but complained it was too static. So in 10.1, Apple freed the dock from its bottom perch, letting users move it elsewhere on the screen. The company also added icons to the upper right-hand corner of the top menu bar so that users can easily change settings, such as battery usage and monitor resolution. None of these changes are huge, but they add up to a lot. The trademark of any great operating system is scores of small conveniences that make it easy and pleasant to use. OS X could open a can of beer and most users would quickly ditch it if the new system were as difficult to operate as Windows.

Apple is only part of the equation that will add up to success for OS X. Software also is a big factor. Right now, OS X runs most of today's software in a special window, or shell, that works as an operating system within an operating system. It's a heck of an engineering trick -- but one that's lost on average users. Sadly, what most users notice is that the shell takes forever to launch and some programs don't work as they used to.

Thank goodness, this will be a fleeting problem. Come fall, many of the big developers will have released versions of their software that will run "native" in OS X. Among those scheduled to release OS X versions of popular programs include Microsoft, Intuit, Adobe, Blizzard, Quark, and Connectix. Office will not only sport OS X's brilliant new color scheme but will no longer take down your whole system, as it is wont to do, when it crashes. And you'll truly be able to print a Word file while you change numbers in an Excel spreadsheet

and download music off the Internet. This is the power that OS X offers.

STARTING POINT. It's great that the big boys of software are upgrading their programs, but none are adding any exciting new features yet with OS X. As one Microsoft programmer said to me: "What we're releasing is just a starting point, the base line from which we will improve."

That's understandable, I guess, given Microsoft's huge library of existing code. How do you add new OS X features without screwing up everything else? It's no small challenge. Still, the big developers' slowness to innovate doesn't address one of the Macs' more enduring problems: a dwindling stream of exciting new software.

Take heart. OS X has sparked the biggest revival in Mac development I've seen since the Apple's brush with death in the mid '90s. It's sparking new interest in the Mac platform. For instance, developers who write for Unix, the industrial strength operating system that runs most corporate and university computers, are now flocking to the Mac. That's no surprise, given that OS X is a Unix-based system with a very pretty face. Unix developers have announced plans to port more than 1,000 programs over to OS X.

NeXt BIG THING. Apple's new operating system also is giving new purpose to NeXt developers, who are versed in the Cocoa framework of OS X. They've cranking out scores of interesting new programs for the Mac. Take Mesa, a spreadsheet that's a cross between AppleWorks and Excel. It's got 80% of Excel's powers but is far easier to use and understand. Then there's Omnigroup's Web browser, which lets you create and edit pages in real time without having to load them first to a server after every change.

It's these little developers with big ideas who are going to keep the Mac a cutting-edge platform. They represent the real promise of OS X and help account for the aqua glow in my eyes. Haddad, Atlanta-based correspondent for BusinessWeek, is a long-time Apple Computer buff. Follow his weekly Byte of the Apple column, only on BW Online

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