Today at Apple's annual World Wide Developer Conference (WWDC), Apple Interim CEO Steve Jobs announced the immediate availability of Mac OS 8.6. Mac OS 8.6 is an incremental update to the Macintosh operating system that introduces some new features and capabilities, addresses a number of known problems, and lays a foundation for future Macintosh models. Mac OS 8.6 has the same system requirements as Mac OS 8.5: any Macintosh system that originally shipped with a PowerPC processor and that has at least 24 MB of RAM.
Obtaining & Installing Mac OS 8.6 -- Mac OS 8.6 is available in two forms: a retail CD-ROM and a free online Mac OS 8.6 Update for Mac OS 8.5 owners. The CD-ROM should be available shortly from Apple for $99 (and at lower prices from other vendors); people who purchased a computer with Mac OS 8.5 pre-installed can obtain Mac OS 8.6 on CD-ROM for $19.95 through Apple's Mac OS Up-To-Date program.
Apple's servers also offer the free Mac OS 8.6 Update, which will upgrade any system running Mac OS 8.5 to Mac OS 8.6. The download is substantial, either as a single 35 MB disk image or as a series of 12 MacBinary segments. The Mac OS 8.6 Update is currently available only for the North American English version of Mac OS 8.5; localized versions should be released in coming weeks.
Installing the Mac OS 8.6 Update is straightforward: the installer offers no custom installation options, so updating from Mac OS 8.5 is an all-or-nothing proposition. As with any installation of system software, common sense dictates that you perform a complete backup of your system before installing Mac OS 8.6. You should also disable any virus protection software and Norton CrashGuard (if installed) before updating to Mac OS 8.6.
If you have an iMac you may need to install the iMac firmware update before installing Mac OS 8.6; the installer won't work if your machine's firmware isn't up to date. The iMac firmware update will be in the CD Extras folder on the retail Mac OS 8.6 CD-ROM; the 1.2 MB update is also available online from Apple for free. In addition, if you have an Ultra Wide SCSI card, you should check with the card's vendor before installing Mac OS 8.6; some older cards need a firmware update to work with Mac OS 8.6.
Getting Ready for Team Play -- Some of the most important changes in Mac OS 8.6 are invisible. Apple has re-implemented some lower levels of the Macintosh system software to support full symmetric multiprocessing. Current applications run under Mac OS 8.6 without any changes, but future applications can take advantage of new multiprocessing services to enhance their performance significantly on systems that have more than one CPU chip.
Although Apple hasn't made any official announcements, it's safe to assume Apple didn't engineer full multiprocessor support into the Mac OS solely to support the handful of older systems with multiple processors. In coming months, Apple is likely to announce new computers built around PowerPC G4 processors, which have been designed with both single- and multi-processor systems in mind. Although I wouldn't expect an iMac with multiple processors any time soon, Apple is likely to offer multiprocessor systems at the high end of the professional and server lines. Mac OS X, built on technologies acquired with NeXT, already supports symmetric multiprocessing; now applications developed for the Mac OS will be able to take advantage of multiprocessor systems as well.
News You Can Use -- Other changes in Mac OS 8.6 are more obvious, including Sherlock 2.1, an enhanced version of the lauded search tool that debuted with Mac OS 8.5. Sherlock 2.1 offers better support for SOCKS and proxy servers (including the capability to limit the number of network connections Sherlock uses when connecting to Internet search sites), and also offers a resizable Internet panel, so users no longer have to use ResEdit or apply patches to resize their list of Sherlock plug-ins. Sherlock 2.1 uses the Mac OS's new built-in URL Access technology to connect to the Internet, which changes a few things about how Sherlock communicates with remote servers. Most existing Sherlock plug-ins will work with Sherlock 2.1 with no changes.
Sherlock's Find By Content feature can now index HTML and Acrobat PDF files, and you can use Finder labels to restrict indexing either to items with a particular label or to all items except those with a particular label. In addition, a new contextual menu item enables you to index a particular folder: Control-click a folder, then choose Index Selection from the contextual menu.
Mac OS 8.6 also includes LaserWriter 8.6.5 and version 1.2 of the Desktop Printer Utility. LaserWriter 8.6.5 is a significant upgrade that supports logging both print jobs and font utilization, enables you to set a preference for using either Type 1 or TrueType fonts, and can force fonts to be downloaded to a printer. In addition, LaserWriter 8.6.5 supports USB-based PostScript printers, and Desktop Printer Utility enables you to create desktop printers for either USB printers or printers you connect to over TCP/IP networks using the LPR protocol. Finally, LaserWriter 8.6.5 supports secure printing connections with print servers under AppleShare IP 6.1 or later (although it obviously can't prevent someone from reading your document while rummaging through a printer's output tray).
DVD-RAM support gets a boost in Mac OS 8.6, enabling folks with DVD-RAM drives to format DVDs as Mac OS Standard (HFS), Mac OS Extended (HFS Plus), Universal Disk Format (UDF), or MS-DOS volumes. The MS-DOS option is available only the first time you format a DVD-RAM disk; subsequent formats must use a Macintosh format or UDF. Starting up from a DVD-RAM drive is not supported, so although you could install system software to a DVD-RAM disk, it wouldn't do you much good.
One under-the-hood addition I'm especially happy to see in Mac OS 8.6 is URL Access, a low-level component that allows programs to transfer information to and from the Internet using HTTP or FTP. I'll look at putting URL Access to work in an upcoming TidBITS issue.
Newly Integrated & Newly Tweaked -- Mac OS 8.6 rolls in items that were previously available separately. Support for FireWire and USB devices is now integrated into the Mac OS installation, as is Game Sprockets, a collection of libraries that help game developers and better enable Macs to support game controllers. Mac OS 8.6 also includes Macintosh Runtime for Java 2.1.1, although Apple recently released MRJ 2.1.2 to address several issues in earlier versions. Mac OS 8.6 ships with QuickTime 3.0.2 but does not include QuickTime 4.0; preview releases are available from Apple.
A few items receive touch-ups in Mac OS 8.6, including AppleScript 1.3.7 (which fixes a few minor bugs and adds Navigation Services capabilities, but doesn't address some long-standing issues) and the AppleShare client. If you're connected to an AppleShare server that goes offline, the alert dialog warning you of that fact is now dismissed after two minutes, and the AppleShare client creates a file on your desktop called AppleShare Server Messages containing the text of the alert.
Mac OS 8.6 includes Open Transport 2.0.3, which fixes several potential problems with DHCP, including a possible crash when acquiring an IP address and connectivity problems with some cable modems and DSL connections. (Also, the AppleTalk control strip module now reliably turns AppleTalk on and off.) Apple has also fixed a long-standing Ethernet problem in first-generation PCI-based Macs and Macintosh clones that could shut down all networking under heavy TCP/IP network loads. These machines may be more reliable as Web, mail, and backup servers under Mac OS 8.6 than under previous systems.
Mac OS 8.6 also includes PlainTalk 1.5.4, which supports 44.1 KHz sound input sources, adds support for the iMac's built-in microphone, and now correctly restores the sound input source when shutting down speech recognition. Also, at long last, the Keyboard control panel now sports a pair of Dvorak keyboard layouts.
The built-in Mac OS HTML help engine has also been updated, although the changes aren't noticeable to users. Apple is finally working on allowing other developers to use Apple's Help Viewer for HTML-based online help, so other programs should start using HTML-based help via Apple's Help Viewer soon.
Finally, Mac OS 8.6 includes Pacific Tech's Graphing Calculator 1.1, which can rotate graphs in three dimensions, use different colors, and even impose an arbitrary image on 3D surfaces. The Graphing Calculator had gone essentially unchanged since 1994, but I still use it to demonstrate Macs - and even occasionally to do math. Version 1.1 of Graphing Calculator adds some fun features - I immediately pasted a photo of one of my cats over an oddly modulating surface - so it's once again a great tool for showing off the Macintosh. Version 1.1 doesn't offer all the capabilities of the commercial edition of Graphing Calculator, currently at version 2.2 and available for $50 - you can check out a demo at Pacific Tech's Web site.
A Few Gotchas -- Although additional specific issues are bound to emerge over the next few weeks, here are a few issues with Mac OS 8.6 you should be aware of now.
If you use Connectix's Virtual PC, you must update to version 2.1.2 or higher to use it with Mac OS 8.6.
Owners of original Apple StyleWriters, the StyleWriter II, or StyleWriter 1200 should use the StyleWriter 1500 printer driver that comes with Mac OS 8.6 rather than the original driver for their printer.
Apple's language kits must be updated before they work with either Mac OS 8.5 or 8.6. If you're upgrading to Mac OS 8.6 from Mac OS 8.1 or earlier, use the Language Kit Updater for Mac OS 8.5; it's available on the Mac OS 8.5 CD-ROM (and will presumably be on the Mac OS 8.6 CD-ROM as well). As far as I can tell, the Language Kit Updater for Mac OS 8.5 is neither available online nor included in the free Mac OS 8.6 Update.
Some applications may need more memory under Mac OS 8.6 due to the way some system components are used. In most cases, giving these applications about 300K more memory via their Get Info windows should solve the problem.
Do You Need Mac OS 8.6? Any decision about upgrading to Mac OS 8.6 is, of course, up to the individual. If you need some of the new features in Mac OS 8.6 and aren't fazed by downloading many megabytes of data, Mac OS 8.6 should be a safe decision. I've had few compatibility or stability problems while using Mac OS 8.6, and the price is right. On the other hand, if none of Mac OS 8.6's new capabilities appeal to you and you're happy with your current system setup, don't feel compelled to upgrade right away - Mac OS 8.6 is a significant and worthwhile refinement over Mac OS 8.5 but doesn't offer profound new features.