This article originally appeared in TidBITS on 1997-07-28 at 12:00 p.m.
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Kicking the Tires on Mac OS 8

by Geoff Duncan

Last week's article in TidBITS-389 gave an overview of some of the new capabilities and features in Mac OS 8. This article looks at some subtler real-world and technical details.

To determine what I should put in this article, I watched as two people used Mac OS 8 for the first time on one of my machines. (One is a power user and de facto Mac administrator at a large, multi-platform company; the other uses her Mac at home for word processing, simple Internet use, and educational CD-ROMs). I also asked four other long-time Macintosh users (two of whom work in the computing industry, all of whom are using Mac OS 8) what they knew about the release and what they expected from it. These notes respond directly to their comments and concerns.

System Folder Folders -- One of the first things people noticed upon opening the Mac OS 8 System Folder is that it has new sub-folders. Just as System 7 included folders for Control Panels, Extensions, Fonts, Preferences, and others, Mac OS 8 creates new sub-folders to reduce clutter. Many, such as Help, Voices, Modem Scripts, and Printer Descriptions, are self-explanatory; others should help when third-party applications adopt them, including Application Support (for programs with their own system resources, like many Adobe and Microsoft products) and Internet Plug-Ins (which will hopefully serve as a repository for browser plug-ins and add-ons, so updating or switching browsers isn't as painful). There are also folders outside the System Folder, including Assistants (with Apple's Setup and Internet Assistants), Utilities, and OpenDoc's Stationery and Editors folders. The Scripting Additions folder has been promoted to the root level of the System Folder (which can confuse some scripting utilities).

System Services -- Mac OS 8 includes a significant user interface revision to File Sharing. The File Sharing and Users & Groups control panels provide a better (though still occasionally clutzy) interface, and the Sharing Setup and File Sharing Monitor control panels have been rolled into a new File Sharing control panel. Setting up Sharing privileges for individual folders now uses pop-up menus rather than checkboxes, but a rather unfortunate Copy button confuses the process of propagating sharing privileges through a folder hierarchy. (Two users thought they had to copy sharing privileges to the clipboard, then paste them onto subsequent folders.)

Programs that use the system color picker can now use two new color pickers: the whimsical Crayon Picker (a big hit with dBUG, the local Mac user group) and an HTML Picker, which can display HTML expressions of colors (as three hexadecimal numbers, like 0099FF) and be restricted to non-dithering "Web colors." If you press Option in any color picker, the cursor changes to an eyedropper that can to pick up any color displayed on your screen.

Mac OS 8 also includes some cool under-the-hood gadgets. Text Encoding Converter 1.2 enables applications to convert text between arbitrary encoding systems (like Mac OS Roman to Windows Latin-1), letting special characters, diacriticals, and other text elements to translate correctly across systems, platforms, and languages. It's also the first step to providing Unicode conversion on the Mac, supporting the enormous Unicode 1.1 and 2.0 character sets, plus all Mac OS script encodings, many Windows encodings, plus some Web and email encoding schemes. Unfortunately, programs must take specific advantage of these services; hopefully that support will become more widespread.


Choose About This Computer from the Finder's Apple menu, and you'll see an enhanced overview of memory use. Under previous systems, applications that used temporary memory in the System heap were shown using the relatively small partitions set in their Get Info windows, while the System heap grew ever larger. Now, temporary memory used by applications is shown as part of that application's memory partition, so you can see how much RAM applications like Internet Explorer are really using. Unfortunately, the new About This Computer window confused one of my sample users: he wanted to know why an application was taking more memory than he had given it in the program's Get Info window, thought something was wrong, and restarted the machine.

On the networking side, Mac OS 8 includes Open Transport 1.2, which offers protection from the heavily publicized Ping Of Death and SYN flood denial-of-service Internet attacks. Open Transport is the only networking technology supported under Mac OS 8; you can't revert to classic networking even on machines that do not require Open Transport. Mac OS 8 also includes AppleShare Workstation Client 3.7.1, which can establish connections via TCP to AppleShare IP servers over local networks or the Internet.

A preliminary tech note on Mac OS 8 is available from Apple. If you need more detailed information on OS 8 internals, it's helpful.

< MacOS8.html>

Cache & Carry -- After last week's article on Mac OS 8, I received several messages from readers asking about Mac OS 8's performance on 68040-based Macs. I've been running OS 8 on a Quadra 650 for a few weeks, and the results have been quite good. System profiling utilities (like Speedometer and Norton System Info - MacBench wouldn't run) put the machine in the same ballpark as its performance under System 7.6.1. However, the machine feels somewhat snappier, especially switching applications and handling background processing.

There's one caveat to these performance notes: disk cache makes a world of difference, especially in the Finder. On either a 68040- or PowerPC-based machine, a 128K disk cache (set via the Memory control panel) seemed adequate until I increased it to 512K or 1 MB and noticed Finder responsiveness increase significantly. Suddenly windows opened, closed, and refreshed more quickly, and file intensive applications (like Web browsers) moved faster. I currently have my disk caches set to about 512K, but optimum settings will depend on your system and available RAM. Click the Default button in the Memory control panel for an initial setting for your machine, then adjust if necessary.

OS 8 Utilities -- Numerous utilities and add-ons for OS 8 are beginning to appear, although I'm only going to note items my sample users or TidBITS readers asked about.



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Apple Events & AppleScript -- The most subtle, yet pervasive, changes involve the Finder and AppleScript 1.1.2, the first real update to AppleScript in about three years. Those who use AppleScript to automate and customize Macintosh will find that AppleScript 1.1.2 fixes known bugs (like concatenating with an empty list and using multi-character delimiters) and adds support for new application types (control panel and accessory applications). Bigger changes lie in the System and Finder. Many items previously scriptable through the Finder (like sharing privileges) now live in scriptable control panels, and the Finder handles several file properties in new ways: scripts compiled under System 7.x using these properties will now find the word "obsolete" following them when they are re-opened under Mac OS 8. If you remove the word "obsolete", the scripts will probably work fine under OS 8, but won't run under earlier systems. This forces some script writers to maintain different source scripts for different versions of the Mac OS. Apple has also changed the way applications and processes are treated, and the Finder now processes Apple events in separate threads, which can create misleading timeout errors. Apple has posted good information about AppleScript with Mac OS 8; I recommend it to all AppleScript programmers.

< overview/system8/ OS8_index.html>

The Finder also has a new event up its oversized sleeve: "rapp," meaning "re-open application." This event will help programmers solve a problem many novice users experience: they don't realize that an application is still running, double-click its icon, and don't notice that the menubar has changed in response. The "rapp" event should let programs detect an attempted re-launch and respond appropriately (perhaps by opening an untitled window or presenting a dialog box). Unfortunately, a few older programs respond with an error, sometimes putting up a dialog saying that an Apple event error has occurred.

AppleScript 1.1.2 is not PowerPC native; that should come in AppleScript 1.2, which may be available by mid-1998.

Let's Focus, Group! How well did my informal group of Mac users understand the changes in OS 8? Pretty well overall, but perhaps not as well as Apple would like.

A rose by any other name is... a rose that's had its name changed. Apple's Copland operating system project was to have been called System 8, which was "coming soon" from Apple as early as 1994. In August of 1996, Apple mothballed Copland and in December of 1996 (after months of rumor and speculation) decided to acquire NeXT. This led to Rhapsody, the combined Apple-NeXT operating system project currently in development. Last March, Apple announced plans to release the Mac OS 7.7 update (code-named Tempo) as Mac OS 8, since it incorporated technologies developed for Copland, and sported a major user experience overhaul.

If that sounds familiar to you, consider yourself one of the Macintosh literati - none my informal group of Mac users could recite that whole story (with or without dates). The distinctions between Copland, System 8, Mac OS 8, Rhapsody and even the Be OS can be lost on users who don't pore over Macintosh magazines, Web sites, and mailing lists. All but one of my sample users asked me where "the NeXT stuff" was in Mac OS 8 (one even asked how to get to the Unix prompt). Another had read extensive coverage of the Be OS last winter and expressed disappointment Be technology didn't "show through." Still another had heard that nearly all control panels and extensions would break under Mac OS 8 (this would have been true of Copland) and was pleasantly surprised to learn Mac OS 8 had a high degree of compatibility with current system enhancements.

Mac OS 8's new platinum appearance can confuse users who grew up on System 7.x, since some interface elements can give false visual cues. One user wanted to know why the Finder's pop-up windows closed automatically ("When I open a drawer on my desk, it stays open until I bang my knee on it!"); another saw the wider window borders on most document windows and questioned "Why are all these windows modal - I thought Mac OS 8 was supposed to be multi-threaded?"

The six Macintosh users I spoke with are not necessarily representative of the larger Mac community, and it's inappropriate to draw sweeping conclusions from their comments. For space reasons, I also haven't mentioned how much of Mac OS 8 they cruised through with little or no trouble: Web Sharing, File Sharing, setting up a Desktop Printer, sticky menus, spring-loaded folders, collapse boxes, and contextual menus. More telling is that the two users I directly introduced to Mac OS 8 were favorably impressed and plan to buy copies for their own machines. Despite a few rough spots in the product and Apple's presentation of it, Mac OS 8 is a very good thing. Let me put it this way: if Mac OS 8 were free, I'd recommend everyone with the requisite hardware get it immediately. Since it's not free, you must decide for yourself if it's worth the cost. It is for us.

DealBITS Discount -- Cyberian Outpost is offering Mac OS 8 to TidBITS readers for $95.95, a negotiated $2 discount off its regular $97.95 price.