Mac OS X looking good, but not supported by much

The high-tech office

Originally published in Business in Vancouver, May 22, 2001

Mac OS X looking good, but not supported by much

Last January, this column looked at a prerelease version of Apple's bet-the-company operating system, OS X (pronounced oh-ess-ten). It was colourful and appealing, stable and powerful. But it was also too different from the way generations of Macintosh users had learned to work.

Apple listened to its beta-testers. In the official release at the end of March it keeps all its power, rainbow colours and special effects, but has also been made more, well, Mac-like.

Drive icons appear on the desktop, where users expect them to be. Finder windows open in a familiar large icon view instead of the new column view. While the preview version's menu bar sported a nonfunctional icon of a blue apple in the middle, now the blue apple's back in the corner, once again a working Apple Menu.

It still features full-colour 3D icons and the Dock, like the Windows taskbar, but oh so much cuter.

The Dock sports icons instead of words which magnify when you pass the mouse over them and seem to jump for joy if you pick one of them. (If you find this sort of thing annoying, it can be turned down or off.)

There are lots of nice features built in; my favourite is the Print Preview dialogue that allows users to save in Adobe Acrobat PDF format, for distribution as an electronic document.

Apple's developers tossed out the decade of increasingly convoluted Mac operating system code. Instead, OS X is built on top of Unix, giving it modern memory management, multitasking and stability. With its colourful Aqua interface, it is the friendliest Unix around, but serious Unix fans can still get underneath to tinker with its guts.

Starting fresh carries penalties, in this case a lack of compatibility with past generations of hardware and software. OS X ($199) requires a G3 processor with at least 128 MB of memory and a gigabyte of free drive space. Out of the box, it lacks support for popular technologies such as CD-recordable, DVD and DVD-rewritable drives. Apple is scrambling on this and has already released two upgrades that speed performance and add support for CD-R drives. OS X automatically upgrades itself over the Internet.

Applications have to be rewritten to support OS X's features, however, and few have been.

A preview version of Microsoft's Internet Explorer is included in the box and a link to a page on Apple's Web site in the new blue Apple Menu makes it easy to find what's new and downloadable. A developer's tools CD ships in the box, in case you want to roll your own OS X applications.

But Microsoft Office, Adobe Photoshop and virtually all the Mac software users rely on are not yet out in OS X versions. Most previous versions will still run, but in so-called Classic Mode, running on top of the previous OS 9.1. (A copy of OS 9.1 is included in the OS X box.) In Classic Mode, you get back the old, multistriped Apple Menu and lose nice OS X features such as being able to create PDF files.

For the minority of applications that won't work even in Classic Mode (on my system, Virtual PC and Dave Windows networking), it's easy to reboot to the real OS 9.1.

Despite its official release, OS X is still a work in progress. Apple is adding features and doesn't expect to pre-install it on their own hardware until the summer. Software developers are busy working on native OS X versions of their programs.

If you're a real Mac fanatic, you can get it now and enjoy its glitz while still getting your work done in Classic Mode.

But while it is the future of the Mac, most users should wait until there's more support for the hardware and software they use.


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