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Mac OS X Solidifies at Macworld Expo

The thrust of Steve Jobs’s keynote at Macworld Expo last week in San Francisco may have been to position the Macintosh as the hub for today’s digital lifestyle, but equally important in the speech were the details Jobs provided about Mac OS X 1.0.

Jobs first gave a brief demo of a few of the already-known features of Mac OS X, after which he showed the changes Apple has made since the public beta, based on feedback from the user community. He claimed, although I can’t quite believe this, that Apple estimated that only 10,000 people would buy the Mac OS X Public Beta, and that they would receive only 3,000 to 4,000 comments. Those estimates turned out to be wildly incorrect, with over 100,000 people buying the public beta and submitting over 75,000 pieces of feedback.

Distinct Improvements — Sounding humble, Jobs then worked through some of the major changes. Mac OS X now has a left-hand functional Apple menu (rather than a useless badge in the center of the menu bar) containing commands like Sleep, Restart, Logout, and others that you might want to access at any time. In response to comments about the lack of functionality in the Dock, Apple added contextual hierarchical menus to icons in the Dock – click and hold for menus that let you navigate folder hierarchies from docked folders, access recently used documents from applications in the Dock, and so on. To address complaints about the size of the Font panel, Apple made it resizable in a variety of flexible ways. And finally, to reduce the wasteful use of screen real estate in Mac OS X, Apple reduced the size of the toolbar in Finder windows, made it highly customizable, and provided a control for turning it off entirely. And, when the toolbar is turned off, Mac OS X switches from its all-in-one-window approach to a more familiar Mac OS 9-like style of each folder appearing in its own window when opened.

Although all of these changes are excellent steps in the right direction, and I don’t doubt that many more have been made as well thanks to user feedback, I hesitate to draw any hard and fast conclusions. For instance, the application menu remained to the immediate right of the Apple menu, and since that’s the name of the application, it will continually change the position of the File and Edit menus that follow on to the right, harming usability by eliminating static targets for common usages. And although word has it that AppleScript is in Mac OS X, it remains to be seen if users will be able to script networking, printing, and other functions which are currently scriptable in Mac OS 9.

Line in the Sand — Even if we don’t know exactly what Mac OS X 1.0 will look like, we do now have a firm price and release date – you’ll be able to buy Mac OS X 1.0 for $129 on 24-Mar-01. Jobs also announced that Apple would start pre-loading Mac OS X on all Macs by default in July of 2001. Mac OS 9.x will continue to run on new hardware for some time, so it should be possible to revert a Mac OS X machine to Mac OS 9, perhaps even with a dual-boot approach such as is used in the Mac OS X Public Beta. That’s important, because otherwise some existing users may delay hardware purchases until they’re ready to deal with Mac OS X. That would likely be especially true of schools and businesses that don’t want to support multiple operating systems or that won’t have approved it for release to their users yet.

Jobs also reported on the number of developers committed to developing for Mac OS X; the details are immaterial and unverifiable, but Apple believes that developer support will follow a bell curve starting this March, peaking in July, and finishing off toward the end of the year. Although I expect Apple’s expectations are accurate, some developers were disappointed that Apple is implicitly shouldering them with responsibility for releasing sooner when Apple’s developer materials for Mac OS X still have notable holes, such as driver support for a variety of peripherals.

With the release of Mac OS X, Apple is not so much walking a tightrope as playing a three-dimensional game of Twister while suspended above a pool of cohabiting alligators and piranhas. Snapping at Apple’s heels are developers with programs that can’t easily be carbonized or who require as-yet unavailable features in Mac OS X, and long-time Macintosh loyalists who fear losing significant investments in software, hardware, and knowledge. Standing by with safety nets to rescue Mac OS X 1.0 from these dangers are new users who face no transition troubles, Unix users excited about running Unix and mainstream productivity applications side-by-side, and developers creating new programs in Cocoa’s fast development environment. Apple has worked miracles before, as with the transition from 68K to PowerPC, but it will be insanely difficult to meet the very real needs of all these groups by July, if not with the initial March release.

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