Mac OS X system emerges from painful adolescence

by Alan Zisman (c) 2002
First published in Business in Vancouver,  Issue #643 February 19-25, 2002, The High Tech Office column

Most of the attention at last month's MacWorld Expo focused on Apple's redesigned iMac computer. A one-line remark of Apple CEO Steve Jobs was, perhaps, more significant to the company and its users' future.

Jobs mentioned that effective immediately, all Macs would be shipping with the company's next-generation operating system, OS X, as the default.

Turn on a new Mac, and you'll be greeting with OS X's throbbing, glowing interface. While Macs have been shipping with both OS X and the older OS 9 installed, they have been booting up to the old look and feel. It was up to users to choose to turn OS X on. Now, users will have to consciously opt for the old way of working.

Apple was proclaiming that OS X, officially released last March, is finally ready for people to use on a daily basis.

Initially this wasn't the case. The first official release sported Apple's new futuristic Aqua user interface, and the power and stability of OS X's Unix core.

But too often it was painfully slow, especially when starting up programs. And given Apple's ambition for its computers to be a "digital hub," connecting cameras, music players, CD burners and more, I was surprised that there wasn't much support for these or other hardware devices. Moreover, when the operating system was new, hardly any software was designed to make full use of its power. Most older Mac programs would run in OS X's Classic Mode, but why would users bother?

OS X looked great, and it was clearly Apple's vision of the future. But when it first came out, there really wasn't much point in actually using it.

A lot has changed since last spring, however. Much of the improvement is due to the September release of the free OS X 10.1 update. 

Programs start up much faster. When you start a program in OS X, its icon bounces expectantly in the Dock along the bottom of the screen. In the original version, on my aging iMac, Internet Explorer took a painful 13 bounces to start up. With the new version it opens in five bounces. The Sherlock search tool used to take five bounces, now it's up in a speedy one bounce.

The update added much-needed support for hardware. Many CD-burners, digital cameras, and printers now work as soon as they're plugged in. It's still not perfect; there's not enough support for scanners or many older devices, for example.

And there's starting to be OS X-native software. Apple claims more than 2,500 applications. Many of these are things that most users have never heard of and will never use, but the major players are starting to release OS X versions of their products, often with new features. Corel, for example, has been bringing out OS X versions of much of its graphics product line, getting a jump on competitor Adobe. Microsoft's newly released Office v. X brings a perky version of that industry standard to Apple's platform (see last week's column). And OS X's Unix core makes it easier to make industrial-strength Unix and Linux applications run on Macs.

Not all the key pieces of software are available for OS X yet. Adobe demonstrated a new version of Photoshop at last month's MacWorld Expo but stayed mum about the release date, although the company has released several other products for OS X. Without Photoshop and Quark XPress, many Mac graphics users aren't going to move over to the new environment.

Apple's been working to replace the traditional Mac operating system for the better part of a decade. Now, in deciding that all new Macs will boot up to OS X, Apple decided that its technology (and users) are finally ready to make the change. 

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