ISSUE 584: Zisman- Jan 2 2001

The high-tech office


Apple's OS X takes users to an otherworldly place

With its next operating system release, Apple is set to take Mac users on a one-way voyage to Oz.

I'm referring to OS X, the first total rebuild in the 16-year history of the Macintosh. Properly pronounced "Oh Es Ten," the operating system will not be officially released until later this year. But a $50 prerelease public beta can be purchased from Apple's Web site and local Mac retailers, and thousands have used it to get a feel for Apple's version of the future.

Requiring a G3 processor and 128 MB of RAM, I installed the public beta on a loaner iMac from Apple.

It installs quickly and easily, the system restarts, and then we're in Oz. Up until then, the movie has been in black and white. When Dorothy opens the door and steps outside, suddenly, everything is in vivid Technicolor. "Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore."

And while a Mac user who had been in suspended animation from 1984 until now would be able to quickly find his or her way around the current OS 9, this new one will take some getting used to. First of all, like Oz, OS X's Aqua interface feels like it was made in Technicolor. Buttons and icons glow and throb. It's visually the most appealing computer interface around. (At the same time, graphic artists have complained that all that colour can be too distracting. As a result, a simple setting tones it down.)

Like Oz, nothing is safe and familiar. Menus are different; there's no more Apple Menu, and familiar commands are now in new locations. For instance, you don't quit an OS X program from the File menu anymore. The Control Panel is now System Preferences. There's a new set of folders to get used to and a new Finder to locate and manage folders and files. The most immediately noticeable new feature is the Dock at the bottom of the screen, with icons of running applications and documents like the Windows Taskbar alongside icons of often-used programs that formerly would have been in the Apple Menu.

The full-colour icons bounce and dance as the mouse passes over them.

Built on top of a Unix base (and the first Mac OS with a command prompt), it handles memory and multiple applications much better than the current generation of Mac systems. As a test, I ran multiple QuickTime video clips at the same time and the computer never skipped a beat.

But in order to take full advantage of its power and abilities, applications need to be rewritten. A few will be rebuilt from the ground up as native OS X applications. More will be modified into what Apple calls "carbonized" applications so that they can run under OS X as well as OS 9, but without being full-fledged OS X products.

While Apple currently lists 269 products "built for OS X," most existing Mac programs will be forced to run under the new system's Classic Environment. Open, say, Microsoft Word (even the new Word 2001) and the system pretends to boot OS 9 and then loads the application. (You can preload OS 9 at boot time, slowing down startup but speeding up loading older applications.) When a Classic application is running your computer is back in the past, complete with old Apple Menu and system font -- and the old instability. But now if your application crashes, it just takes down the OS 9 session, while the computer itself stays up and running.

Some current Mac applications and hardware simply won't work under the new OS. Installing OS X cost me Virtual PC, PC-networking utility Dave and my USB floppy disk, for instance. I'll have to wait for new versions and drivers to get these back.

It remains to be seen whether millions of Mac users will happily buy into Apple's new look or whether, like Dorothy, they'll prefer to click their heels together and return to the familiar, chanting "There's no place like home."

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