Today, Apple shipped Mac OS 7.6, an all-encompassing system software release that includes a few new features, a significant set of changes under the hood, and a collection of Apple technologies that were previously available for free. Mac OS 7.6 is not free and is not available for downloading. At over 120 MB for the CD-ROM version, that's probably good.
Mac OS 7.6 provides a much-needed baseline for system software. Prior to 7.6, installing the latest version of the Mac OS could be an arduous task, involving two or three system software installations, plus installations for technologies like OpenDoc and Open Transport. Mac OS 7.6 eliminates many of these steps and helps minimize confusion over various flavors of System 7.5. Furthermore, Apple actually did what it promised: shipped an update to the Mac OS in January of 1997.
On the down side, enthusiasm for Mac OS 7.6 has been underwhelming, largely due to the lack of new gee-whiz features Apple has been promising for years. Mac OS 7.6 does not include a multi-threaded, PowerPC-native Finder, a fast, full-text search engine, active assistance, the fabled Appearance Manager (which provides highly-customizable desktop themes), or integrated Java support. All these features are now candidates for Tempo, the next update, which Apple has scheduled for July of 1997.
Installing Mac OS 7.6 -- One of Mac OS 7.6's new features is Install Mac OS, an umbrella installer for both the core operating system and add-ons like OpenDoc, Cyberdog, and QuickDraw GX. Install Mac OS has been heralded as a new installer, but it's really a shell program that controls installers for individual components. Thankfully, Install Mac OS notifies users to update their hard disk drivers when installing software (a common problem Apple previously covered in ReadMe files, which people usually only examine after they've had trouble), and runs Disk First Aid before attempting to install any system software. Install Mac OS also enables users to create a brand new System Folder or to update an existing system, a previously hidden function.
However, Install Mac OS can also be confusing. When you've told it what you want to install, it proceeds to launch old-style installers for components, which again ask what you want to do. So, if you choose to install Mac OS 7.6, OpenDoc, and QuickDraw 3D, you're first presented with the Mac OS 7.6 installer, then the OpenDoc installer, and finally the QuickDraw 3D installer. By the time you reach the second installer, you may have forgotten how you got there or what's coming next.
Apple has changed individual installer applications too, most notably the Mac OS 7.6 custom install, which now groups components in functional categories (such as Mobility, Multimedia, and Assistance) in addition to categories like Control Panels and Extensions. Unfortunately, this means that individual items (such as PC Exchange) appear in more than one section, and selecting an item in one category doesn't select it the others, creating confusion as to whether something will be installed.
What's Included -- In addition to the core system software, Mac OS 7.6 ships with QuickTime 2.5, OpenDoc 1.1.2, Cyberdog 1.2.1, QuickDraw 3D 1.0.6, QuickDraw GX 1.1.5, MacLink Plus 8.1 (from DataViz), Open Transport 1.1.1, Open Transport/PPP 1.0, Remote Access Client 2.1, and version 1.2 of the Apple Internet Connection Kit.
You may note Mac OS 7.6 isn't shipping with QuickDraw 3D 1.5 and Open Transport 1.1.2. Why not? The simple answer is scheduling: coordinating over 100 MB of material from (literally) dozens of different product groups within Apple is no simple thing. Apple probably set absolute deadlines for product units in order to make Mac OS 7.6 ship on time. This is in keeping with Apple's incremental update policy, where individual technologies - like Cyberdog, Open Transport, and QuickTime - will be upgraded separately between major releases of the Mac OS for users who need the latest versions as soon as possible.
However, this situation can create hassles for users who try to keep up with Apple technologies. If you've already installed Open Transport 1.1.2, the Mac OS 7.6 installer will complain (repeatedly) that you're replacing a newer version of Open Transport. If you want to use Open Transport 1.1.2, you must reinstall it after installing Mac OS 7.6. Classic networking isn't supported under Mac OS 7.6, so you must use Open Transport. Though these problems primarily affect users knowledgeable enough to understand the situation - power users, programmers, and Mac loyalists - it isn't making Apple many friends.
What's New -- Aside from the new installer, Mac OS 7.6 includes Extensions Manager 4.0, a significant improvement over earlier versions. In addition to enabling users to manage system extensions and extension sets, Extensions Manager 4.0 also features an updated interface (with sorting capabilities) plus the ability to view extensions as a flat set, by folder, or by package. The latter is particularly useful, since it enables users to identify and turn on or off all related parts of a complex set, like Now Utilities or OpenDoc. Software vendors may need to update their system extensions to identify what package they belong to, but a surprising number of system components already have this information. Extensions Manager 4.0 doesn't track down extension conflicts like Casady & Greene's Conflict Catcher, but it can export a detailed text file listing your extension configuration.
Mac OS 7.6 also includes a few new convenience items, such as Desktop Printing 2.0.2, which lets you move desktop printers off the desktop into folders. You can also switch between desktop printers using a new control strip module and within the Print dialog box (although I'm not sure if the latter requires LaserWriter 8.4). Also, tucked away in the Speech Control Panel is a feature called Talking Alerts, which enables text-to-speech software to read the text of onscreen alerts after a user-defined period of time - a potentially handy feature for the visually impaired or for people who need to have their Macs shout to them from across the room. Unfortunately, Talking Alerts only functions on modal alert messages.
Also, the classic FKEY (PictWhap) that enabled you to take snapshots of your Macintosh screen has been updated. Command-Shift-4 no longer sends a screen capture to a printer: now, the key combination lets you select a portion of your screen to be saved as a file; further, if Caps Lock is down, the cursor changes to a bull's-eye and you can take a screen shot of just about any window you can click. Pressing Command-Shift-3 still causes your Mac to take a picture of your entire screen, but (with either key combination) pressing Control puts the picture into the clipboard instead of in a file on the top level of your startup drive. These features don't compete with screen shot utilities like Nobu Toge's venerable shareware Flash-It, but they'll be a boon to tech writers everywhere.
There are also a number of low-level changes in Mac OS 7.6. PowerPC and 68040 Macs can now support volume sizes up to two terabytes, many earlier updates and system extensions have been rolled into the system file, Apple events can now carry more than 64K of data, and improvements throughout the system significantly enhance stability. Two memory management changes are noteworthy: first, 24-bit machines (the Mac II, IIx, SE/30, and IIcx) that previously used Connectix's MODE32 aren't supported under Mac OS 7.6. Similarly, machines with a 68000 or 68020 processor are no longer supported, including the Plus, SE, Classic, Portable, LC, and PowerBook 100. Also, PowerPC-based Macs can only run the Modern Memory Manager under Mac OS 7.6: support for the old 68K Memory Manager is no longer available.
Users will also notice that references to Macintosh are being changed to Mac OS, and the familiar About this Macintosh item in the Finder now reads About this Computer. Similarly, the much-loved Welcome to Macintosh display that appears when a machine first starts up has been suppressed in favor of a more modern (and more generic) Mac OS logo.
What's Missing -- Mac OS 7.6 does not include Mac OS Runtime for Java (MRJ), something Apple promised when it announced its biannual update plan. Apple just completed MRJ 1.0 for PowerPC; a version for 68K-based machines is promised shortly.
Mac OS 7.6 no longer supports PowerTalk, Apple's pioneering but now-defunct email and workgroup software. If you need PowerTalk's capabilities, you have little choice but to stick to your current system software. Programmers and power users should also note that Mac OS 7.6 requires MacsBug 6.5.4, which is not yet publicly available.
The most significant missing element of Mac OS 7.6 is support for CFM-68K. The CFM-68K extension is required on 68K Macs in order to run a smattering of current applications including: OpenDoc, Cyberdog, LaserWriter 8.4, Apple Media Tool, AOL 3.0, and Internet Explorer 3.0. Apple recently discovered a serious bug in CFM-68K, and recommends that owners of 68K Macs disable it (see TidBITS-356.). Mac OS 7.6 removes even the option of running CFM-68K for risk takers who want to run CFM-68K-dependent software. Fortunately, there are workarounds for developers to test CFM-68K under Mac OS 7.6, and a patch may be available soon (two potential fixes are currently being tested by Apple).
Availability -- You can purchase Mac OS 7.6 directly from Claris, and it should be available in traditional channels (including mail-order and online vendors) shortly. From Claris, Mac OS 7.6 costs $99 on CD-ROM, and $129 on floppy disks. If you can prove you purchased a version of System 7.5 (either on its own or with a computer), you can upgrade for $69, or $99 on floppy. If you recently bought a Mac that didn't ship with 7.6, you may qualify for a $24 upgrade through Apple's Mac OS Up-To-Date program (details at the URL below). None of these prices includes shipping, handling, and tax: a typical $69 CD-ROM upgrade from Claris will total more than $80.
At this time, we have no information about the availability of localized versions of Mac OS 7.6.
Should You Buy Mac OS 7.6? Mac OS 7.6 would be more appealing at a lower price - Apple would do well to re-examine discounted upgrade pricing (or possibly subscription-based pricing aimed at non-corporate users). If you own a Power Macintosh and like to keep up with cutting-edge applications, Mac OS 7.6 could be beneficial. If you're happy with your current setup or own a 68K Mac, Mac OS 7.6 is much less compelling, and you may wish to wait for Tempo to ship in July. If you manage a lab or set of Macs, however, System 7.6's all-encompassing installer should prove to be a real time-saver.