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Mac OS X: The Future Is Here – Coming Soon!

On Saturday, March 24th, Apple released Mac OS X 10.0, marking the company’s official move from the much-evolved Mac OS 9.1 to the entirely new Mac OS X. The $130 package, which includes both Mac OS X and a separate CD containing Mac OS 9.1, is widely available for less than list price, both for those receiving a discount for having participated in the public beta program and via vendors offering deals like TidBITS sponsor Small Dog Electronics.


Although Apple is making a bit of a fuss about the release, they’ve clearly chosen not to concentrate too much marketing effort on the new operating system at this time. A larger splash may come during July’s Macworld Expo NY 2001, when it’s likely Apple will have an update to Mac OS X and will start to install it by default on new Macs. Here at TidBITS, the quiet release has engendered some debate about what we should write, and in fact, what sort of coverage Mac OS X deserves.


The reason for Apple’s quiet release is simple – in my opinion, Mac OS X doesn’t offer most people enough advantages over Mac OS 9. One fact is indisputable: Mac OS X can’t currently do everything that’s possible with today’s hardware and software. A number of Apple’s high-profile features are missing, such as playing DVDs and burning both DVDs and CD-Rs. Hardware is also problematic – although Mac OS X has support for some peripherals and expansion cards, using other pieces of hardware may require the user to reboot in Mac OS 9.1. (A tip – on Macs since the beige Power Mac G3, hold down the Option key when restarting to receive a choice of operating systems to use for the next startup.) And of course, although many applications run fine in Mac OS X’s Classic mode, few applications have been "carbonized" so they can run natively under Mac OS X. Luckily, among those already carbonized are Apple’s own iTunes, iMovie 2, and a preview of AppleWorks 6.1, all of which can be downloaded.


I don’t mean to imply Apple should have delayed Mac OS X’s release. Anyone scheduling a software release of any magnitude (especially an operating system) must take into account multiple technical, business, and marketing factors, and even if it’s easy to criticize Apple for certain technical gaps, I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt on the business and marketing aspects of the release. It’s important for Apple to make good on its promises, show that Mac OS X is real, and give early adopters a chance to gain experience before exposing Mac OS X to the masses via new Macs.

To get back to our conundrum of what to write about the Mac’s new operating system, we decided to look at just who should buy and install Mac OS X, along with the related question of who should avoid it for the near future. We plan to have more detailed looks at different aspects of Mac OS X itself in future issues, but we feel it’s most important right now to help people decide if they should make the jump immediately. Keep in mind that even if you decide that now is not the time, we’ll soon be seeing a frenzy of releases, both updates to existing programs and new programs that address shortcomings in Mac OS X. It’s also worth remembering that we should avoid the notion that this release of Mac OS X is an "upgrade" to the existing Mac OS: it’s better thought of as an alternative operating system that not only runs most Mac OS 9 software in Classic mode but also enables you to reboot under Mac OS 9 at any time. Few upgrades are so forgiving of the past.

Who Should Install Mac OS X? Let’s start on a positive note and look at who definitely should install Mac OS X, preferably soon. The two groups at the head of the line are developers and anyone in tech support, since knowledge of Mac OS X for them is paramount. Then come expert hobbyists, Macintosh/Unix aficionados, and folks interested in Macs as Internet servers. And of course, anyone who has a G3-based Mac with 128 MB of RAM and sufficient curiosity can install Mac OS X without committing to a permanent migration. Because you can boot in Mac OS 9.1, there’s no significant downside to Mac OS X other than its $130 price tag and the time spent installing and exploring.

Noting that developers should be among the first to switch to Mac OS X feels obvious, but it’s still worth mentioning. Apple has been clear that Mac OS X is the future of the Macintosh, and with a CEO as strong-minded as Steve Jobs at the helm, I can’t see Apple backing down from Mac OS X. As such, if programmers want to continue to create software for the Macintosh, they simply must be developing for Mac OS X. I also believe developers should be seeing what it’s like to use Mac OS X in the real world, since that’s the only way to understand what customers will experience. Of course, most developers already have access to pre-release versions of Mac OS X, so this process should already be underway.

Tech support people should immediately set a Mac up with Mac OS X to gain experience for when it starts shipping on new machines. Relatively few people are likely to be using Mac OS X in the next few months (and those who do won’t need much tech support anyway), but that number will climb fast come July.

For expert hobbyists, Mac OS X will be a lot of fun, purely because it’s a whole new world to explore, complete with tips to trade, freeware and shareware utilities to download, and tweaks to be made. But beyond the fact that these people will enjoy Mac OS X immensely (although probably not on a primary work machine), they will be a significant source of information for everyone who follows on the adoption curve.

Anyone who’s interested in Unix and the Macintosh should also install Mac OS X, in part to start learning just what Mac OS X’s Unix underpinnings can do, but also to bridge the gap between the Macintosh and Unix communities. Much of Mac OS X’s appeal is the way it offers a Macintosh interface along with Unix flexibility and networking power, and we’re already seeing people make the Macintosh/Unix connection technically with Carbon applications that provide Macintosh interfaces to command-line Unix programs. We also need these people to provide the social bridge between the Mac and Unix communities, since both stand to benefit from the association.

Finally, I’d encourage anyone who’s interested in running Internet servers on the Mac to install Mac OS X on a test machine. Despite Apple’s neglect, we’ve long been proponents of Mac OS-based Internet servers because the Mac’s ease-of-use, security, and decent performance combine for an ideal server solution for all but the highest volume uses. With Mac OS X bringing the power of Unix networking and a wide variety of new Internet servers, the concept of running Internet servers on a Mac will be revitalized, and I know we’ll be investigating various solutions on Mac OS X for the next iteration of TidBITS’s Internet services.

Who Should Wait? Frankly, this is an easier question to answer, because unless you fall into one of the groups above and/or know you want to install Mac OS X for a specific reason, you should wait until it has better hardware support and more native software, and until the tech support and expert user communities know more about it. That said, here are some groups that should be sure to wait.

Those people for whom a specific set software or hardware is utterly indispensable should hold off. For instance, someone who’s reliant on specific extensions may not have any luck in Mac OS X’s Classic environment, and a person who relies on the kind of adaptive technologies that Joe Clark recently wrote about here in TidBITS is almost certainly shut out (see his "Accessibility on the Mac" articles). Numerous other niches fall into this category as well; for example, audio and video professionals who use third party hardware and accompanying software simply can’t switch until their hardware and software are supported in Mac OS X. Similarly, production machines running QuarkXPress, Adobe InDesign, and a host of other publishing software would do well to choose established workflow over the newest operating system. At some point, the compatibility issues plaguing the myriad niches within these groups will disappear, but it could be quite some time.


The next group that shouldn’t mess with Mac OS X is unlikely to have compatibility problems, since their needs are generally relatively basic. I’m thinking of the undemanding users who primarily use email, the Web, and maybe one or two other applications. They’re the classic iMac users, often had computers purchased for them by friends or relatives, and in many cases aren’t particularly comfortable with common tasks even in Mac OS 9. Mac OS X offers them nothing – it’s not clear that the places where its interface is different are better for this group, and the mere fact of it being different is a negative. Worse, the people this group relies on for assistance won’t necessarily be able to help for some time. Frankly, I don’t think many people in this group will ever switch – I know I won’t be upgrading my grandparents’ respective iMacs. However, once future consumers in this category receive Mac OS X on a new machine, they’ll probably do fine, since their needs are basic.

The next group who shouldn’t install Mac OS X immediately consists of organizations with communities of users that require tech support. The fact that this group won’t move to Mac OS X widely could be damaging for Apple. Although support personnel within these businesses, schools, and other large organizations should be installing and learning Mac OS X, I expect it will be some time before they understand Mac OS X well enough to want to support it. User education, application compatibility, and mixing operating systems on a network could all play a factor in slowing Mac OS X’s acceptance in such installations. At the same time, Apple must work hard to overcome these concerns or risk a hit to hardware sales as large organizations dig in their heels on existing hardware to avoid even the question of having to switch before they’re ready.

Last we come to the folks in the gray area – they’re capable of learning and using Mac OS X, and they don’t rely on incompatible hardware and software, so they could install Mac OS X. But at the same time, the people in this group don’t fall into one of the categories of users who should make the switch. What should you do if you find yourself in this situation? Frankly, go with your gut feeling. If Mac OS X’s stability is tremendously appealing to you, go ahead and make the jump. But if, on the other hand, you feel that Mac OS 9 isn’t really broken, then there’s no need to attempt to fix it by installing Mac OS X.

TidBITS Staff Moves — Just to bring home the fact that these decisions affect everyone in very different ways, here’s how those of us at TidBITS are dealing with the Mac OS X release.

Once my copy of Mac OS X arrives, I’ll install it on my 250 MHz PowerBook G3 so I have a test machine and so I can see what it’s like to work in the Mac OS X interface. That machine mainly runs Internet Explorer, iTunes, Now Up-to-Date, Now Contact, and iView MediaPro, so I expect I’ll be able to keep it basically functional. I’ll probably hold off installing Mac OS X on my primary Power Mac G4/450 until I’ve established the compatibility level of my necessary applications.

Tonya’s interested in using Mac OS X in theory, and she doesn’t do much beyond email, Web browsing, financial management in Quicken and MYOB, and contact and calendar management, but the two obstacles in her way are memory (her iBook has only 96 MB and Mac OS X absolutely requires 128 MB if you use Classic mode) and the fact that Mac OS X doesn’t offer her any notable benefits. Plus, she lacks the time to play with it right now.

Geoff Duncan won’t be upgrading to Mac OS X any time soon, since he has only one Mac that meets Mac OS X’s hardware requirements, and he relies heavily on it for audio and music production. Until such time as his essential niche applications are available and solidified for Mac OS X – and replacements are available for external devices which will never be supported under Mac OS X – Geoff has little choice but to stick with Mac OS 9.

Jeff Carlson’s new PowerBook G4 Titanium is fully capable of supporting Mac OS X, and he’s already partitioned a 2 GB section of the hard disk expressly for it. Jeff plans to install Mac OS X when he finds the time, if only to get hands-on experience with what everyone will be talking about (and maybe stir the dormant Unix geek that’s just gotta live inside him somewhere).

Matt Neuburg is not by temperament an "early adopter," and he doesn’t like to use beta software, let alone beta operating systems. But he knew that the second edition of his REALbasic book would have to cover REALbasic’s ability to create native Mac OS X applications. So when prices dropped in December, he bought a PowerBook G3 (FireWire), gave it several partitions, and installed Mac OS 9.0.4 on one of them. Last Saturday, when Mac OS X became available, he bought it and installed Mac OS X on one partition and Mac OS 9.1 (for Classic mode) on another. However, he still gets his everyday work done by starting up from the Mac OS 9.0.4 partition, and he expects this to remain true for quite some time to come.

Mark Anbinder has already installed Mac OS X on his new PowerBook G4 Titanium and on his office Power Mac G4, partly because he provides campus-wide Macintosh support and consulting as part of Cornell Information Technologies at Cornell University. Mark switches back and forth between Mac OS 9.1 and Mac OS X on his laptop as needed (primarily for software like Apple DVD Player and Virtual PC, which don’t run in Classic mode) but has been running almost exclusively in Mac OS X on his desktop computer (using Classic to handle lots of non-carbonized software smoothly) for quite some time.

We hope this article has provided some guidance in your decision about whether you should purchase and install Mac OS X right away, wait a few months, or put off the entire decision until a future hardware purchase brings it up again. Make sure to vote in our poll regarding your Mac OS X plans, and whatever your decision, note that useful information about Mac OS X has already started to appear in TidBITS Talk, so be sure to subscribe (send any message to <[email protected]>) and participate to get all the details and pointers to other resources.

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