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Beta Mac OS X Has Beauty, Brawn, Bumps

October 19, 2000|JIM HEID | jim@jimheid.com

So it turns out the Mac didn't die after all. Yes, things were grim for a while, as a parade of ineffective chief executives dragged Apple through years of uninspired designs and unfocused product development.

But then came the return of Steve Jobs, who refocused Apple's engineering, banished beige from the product line, capitalized on the "i" word and brought a renewed vigor that surprised even many Mac die-hards.

And so it seems appropriate to kick off a new, weekly Mac column with a look at one of Jobs' riskiest product launches yet: Mac OS X, pronounced "ten." The next release of the Mac's operating system is now available in prerelease, public beta form from Apple's online store at http://www.apple.com/store. The final version should ship early next year, but in the meantime, if you have an iMac or faster Mac with at least 128K of memory, you can glimpse and even influence the future of the machine for $29.95.

If you're willing to tread the thin ice of prerelease software, that is. Mac OS X can be flaky. Casual Mac users should avoid the public beta, and power users should back up before installing it.

Mac OS X transforms the Mac's interface with enough eye candy to choke a trick-or-treater. Buttons glow, icons gleam and menus and windows have three-dimensional depth. Start a program, and its icon bounces as the program loads. Click a window's minimize button to set it aside and the window pours itself into an icon "dock" at the bottom of the screen. Click the minimized window's icon, and the window bursts from the dock like a genie from a bottle. I think Steve Jobs has a future in the animation business.

As someone who resists change--I write letters to the editor when the comics page is redesigned--I expected to despise Mac OS X's interface, called Aqua. But I've grown to like it. Everything has a finely crafted look, the animation isn't intrusive and you can disable it if you want.

My biggest Aqua complaint concerns the anti-aliased, or smooth-edged, fonts in Mac OS X's menus and message boxes. It looks out of focus. Apple should restore the Mac OS 9 option that enables you to turn off anti-aliasing.

This option is one of many Mac mainstays missing in Mac OS X. Others include the Apple menu, the Chooser and the control strip. The bottom line is this: Apple has redesigned the comics page, and we must learn to live with it.

And even a traditionalist can appreciate the new Finder file-management software. Enough is familiar that Mac veterans won't feel lost, but a new toolbar and new viewing modes make it easier to jump to frequently used folders and navigate huge hard drives.

If Mac OS X was simply a glitzy interface bolted to a creaky operating system, it would be, well, Windows. Under the hood, Mac OS X replaces the Mac's aged, crash-prone software architecture with one that promises better reliability and performance. At its core, Mac OS X is a variant of UNIX, long a favorite of big business and institutions.

The improvement users will notice most is called protected memory: If one Mac OS X program crashes, it's unlikely to affect other programs. In Mac OS 9, a crashing program usually brings down the entire house of cards.

Beauty and brawn--what more could you want? Software. Developers must adapt their wares to use Aqua and Mac OS X's architecture. All the big names have committed to doing so, but Mac OS X is still under construction, and you can't build a house until the foundation is finished. Expect a dearth of native Mac OS X software for at least a few months after the OS ships.

Fortunately, many current Mac programs run under Mac OS X using what Apple calls the "classic environment." You can also have your Mac start up under Mac OS 9, bypassing the new OS altogether.

In the end, Apple faces many hurdles with Mac OS X: overcoming upgrade resistance by the Mac faithful; successfully hiding UNIX's complexities from users who choose the Mac for its simplicity; and reassuring developers made skittish by Apple's recent warning of lowered earnings due to sluggish sales.

*

Jim Heid is a contributing editor of Macworld magazine and has been using Macs since 1983.

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