Be careful what you wish for (OS X)

by Alan Zisman (c) 2001. First published in Vancouver Computes, January 1991

For a year or more, many Mac fans have been on a sort of a holy pilgrimage. Whenever we've had some problem or disappointment with Mac hardware or software, we’ve been able to keep up the faith by chanting "Wait for OS X".

It has been the fervent hope that this long-awaited total operating system revision will cure all ills: restore Apple's market share, banish the Windows demons and more.

OS X will be released soon. A Public Beta has been available on Apple's web site and from Mac dealers for about CDN$50, and thousands of the faithful have installed it to get a taste of the Future according to Steve Jobs.

OS X requires a G3 processor (or better) and 128 MB of RAM (or more). It installs quickly and easily, moving the previous operating system, applications, and data into a new Mac OS 9 folder.

Boot-up looks different. No more loading extensions and control panels. There's a compulsory log-on; like Windows NT or 2000, or any of the Linux/Unix variants, OS X is designed for multiple users. In fact, this total re-write of the Macintosh experience is built on a core of open source BSD Unix.

When you've booted up (much faster than in OS 9, by the way) it's to a very different place. No more Finder on the desktop, with familiar icons for the hard drive, no more Trash in the corner. All the icons for your documents and programs that you're used are gone. No more Apple Menu at the top left. (There is a blue Apple icon in the center of the menu bar, but it's just eye candy.).

In their place is the Dock, a row of large, full colour icons along the bottom of the screen, including a new-age Trash at the end. Like the Windows Taskbar, it shows currently running programs and documents. Like the classic Apple Menu, you can add icons for programs or documents for quick and easy access.

Icons jump up when you pass the mouse over them, displaying their name. While fun, it gets distracting. Luckily, the animation, along with icon size can be easily modified from the Preferences menu. The first icon is for the new-style Finder, now a separate application like Windows' My Computer. It opens up to a view of the Computer, with large icons representing the Macintosh HD, the Network, and any other available disks.

Disk contents can be viewed in large icons, or as a familiar list, but also in a new Column View, which keeps expanding to the left as subdirectories get opened. Very handy, especially since OS X creates a new and complex arrangement of folders.

OS X does everything we might like a modern operating system to do—users can run applications, open and save files, create folders, connect to the Internet, and more. It does it with grace and power, efficiently using the resources of modern Macintoshes. It offers modern memory management, along with far more stability and robustness than previous Mac operating systems.

But a Mac with OS X is no longer a Mac. It looks and feels different from what Mac users are used to. And it works differently, often it ways that simply seem unnecessary.

For example, some standard menu items are moved about, seemingly randomly. Users will look in vain for Quit in the File menu, instead finding it in the application menu to the left. Why? Luckily, the Command + Q shortcut still works, for Mac Users unwilling to Think Different.

While Apple lists a few hundred Mac apps that have been rewritten to take advantage of OS X's new features, the vast majority are not—even new releases such as Microsoft Office 2001 (though a beta of an OS X MS Internet Explorer is included with the OS X Preview). That means they run in 'Classic Mode'. Before running a classic application, the computer sort of loads OS 9. Classic applications don't benefit from OS X stability and features, but it one crashes, it just takes down the Classic Mode session, not the whole computer.

That's if it works at all. Some don't. On my system, that included Virtual PC (Connectix claims they'll have a new version out soon after the official OS X release), Dave, for networking to my PCs, and Real Player 8. And the system could no longer find my USB floppy disk drive.

OS X is visually attractive, and seems rock solid as promised. But for now, at least, too few Mac applications and hardware use it to best advantage. And many Mac users may find it requires more new learning than they had bargained for.

Classic American fantasy author James Branch Cabell (who had his brief moment of fame when his 1922 novel Jurgen was banned in Boston) suggested that the only thing worse than not getting what you dream of is to actually get it. Mac fans may find that this is the case.

(postscript: The March release of OSX showed that Apple listened-- that version included many changes that I and many other Preview users had called for, and resulted in a product that, while still glitzy and powerful, was much more friendly to long-time Mac-users).

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan