More than any other event, Macworld Expo stirs up the excitement of Mac users looking for Apple’s newest take on thinking different. Ironically, the show also tends to temper that excitement with an equal dose of patience. At Macworld Expo San Francisco 2001, Steve Jobs incited outbreaks of mass techno-lust with the introduction of the PowerBook G4 Titanium, but even those who ordered their machines wirelessly from the floor of the keynote didn’t receive them for several weeks. At this year’s show in New York, Jobs introduced Mac OS X 10.1, Apple’s first major update to its new operating system – but you won’t be able to get your hands on it until September. Here’s some of what you have to look forward to.
The Bouncer at the Door — Translucent menus and preemptive multitasking quickly lose their luster if essentials like selecting menu items or resizing Finder windows don’t respond quickly. The main improvement in Mac OS X 10.1 is a performance boost across the board, with an emphasis on improving application launch time, as measured in bounces. Under Mac OS X, a program’s icon bounces like a caffeinated child in its place on the Dock to indicate that the application is loading. Under Mac OS X 10.1, Internet Explorer launched in one bounce, and Mac OS X’s Mail program barely bounced at all. Of course, Jobs was undoubtedly running on the fastest possible hardware, but we’ve heard that launch performance is two to three times better even on slower Macs.
"Performance, performance, performance," Jobs chanted, but it’s not just brute-force processing power that’s improved. Under 10.1, you’ll be able to choose a method of minimizing windows. The current scheme, called Genie because of the way windows get sucked into the Dock, will be joined by Scale, which resizes the window proportionally as it moves to the Dock. The effect is cleaner and faster than Genie, and Jobs suggested that Scale will be the default behavior when 10.1 is released. (Personally, I’d vote for a balloon behavior, where the window splutters around the screen, deflates, and drops limply to the Dock.)
Finder windows will also enjoy resizable columns in the column view (hopefully the widths will be remembered, unlike Mac OS X 10.0.4), and long filenames will run onto multiple lines if needed instead of truncating the text. Like Windows, Mac OS X 10.1 will offer the capability for users to hide or show filename extensions. This feature is disastrously confusing in Windows; let’s hope Apple somehow avoids similar problems.
Another improvement to the system’s Aqua interface is the capability to position the Dock on the left, right, or bottom edges of the screen. This is possible in the current version of Mac OS X, although the position isn’t remembered through restarts. To move your Dock now, Control-click the dividing line between applications and documents in the Dock to choose an alignment, though the new system won’t support putting the Dock at the top edge of the screen.
Apple is also addressing Dock overload by pulling some functions currently available as Dock extras out of the Dock and into the top menu bar. These "system menus," as Jobs called them, will display status for battery life and AirPort signal strength, and offer controls for changing sound volume, display settings, and a modem connection. The concern here is that this area will itself immediately be overloaded, much as happens with the Windows system tray. The existing Control Strip isn’t perfect, but at least it can be tucked away off-screen when not needed.
Finally, applications in the Dock can now have menus, just like folders do, though it was unclear from the keynote just what menu items would appear there.
Hub Caps — Mac OS X 10.1 catches up on Apple’s digital hub strategy, adding DVD playback and CD burning (for saving data, not just music via iTunes) directly in the Finder, courtesy of a new Burn button that can be placed in the toolbar in Finder windows. Perhaps the most entertaining moment in the keynote came from Jobs when he tried to connect a digital camera via USB; when it didn’t work, he just tossed (er, threw) it to an Apple employee offstage and moved on. Later, he came back to the camera and showed the system automatically copying its images to a special folder that can also use the photos as the basis for one of Apple’s screensaver modules.
Of course, Mac OS X 10.1 couldn’t be a digital hub if it weren’t at the center of things, so Apple has boosted its networking capabilities. You will finally be able to configure AirPort base stations from within the AirPort Admin Utility under Mac OS X 10.1. Apple is also adding support for connecting to the machine using AFP over AppleTalk, plus SMB networking support to enable the Mac to interoperate better on a Windows-dominated network. Mac OS X 10.1 will not only support an emerging technology called WebDAV (Web-based Distributed Authoring and Versioning; it’s a set of extensions to the Web’s HTTP protocol to enable users to edit and manage remote files collaboratively – you can think of it as FTP on steroids), it will use WebDAV as the underlying technology behind your iDisk. Since WebDAV uses the stateless HTTP to transfer data, it can be left on your desktop for long stretches of time without having to always check in with Apple’s servers.
The Future Is Still Here, Still Coming Soon, For $20 — When it becomes available in September, Mac OS X 10.1 will be available as a "free" upgrade for current users. However, because so much data has changed between this release and previous ones, owners of Mac OS 10.0.4 and earlier will find themselves spending $20 (for shipping and handling) to order the update on CD. Apple’s certainly allowed to charge whatever they want, but it’s a bit annoying to be forced to pay more for an update which feels like a fix to make the operating system basically functional for mainstream users. Even if a online update was huge, why not give users the option of a very long download to head off any complaints?