One year ago this month, Apple broke its own curse. After a half decade of trying, it finally shipped an operating system that wouldn't crumple every time a program crashed.
That didn't mean most people would want to install Mac OS X when it shipped on March 24, 2001. But from that day on, the clock on this transition was running -- as Apple CEO Steve Jobs has repeatedly emphasized with a favorite analogy.
The first major update, Mac OS X 10.1, followed in September -- six months after the launch, or 6 o'clock in Jobs' imagery. In January, at 9 o'clock, Apple made OS X (pronounced "10," not "X") the default operating system on new Macs.
That means it's now 12 o'clock. Time's up!
At this one-year mark, OS X passes the most important test of an upgrade: I don't like using the old Mac OS 9 anymore.
Much of the commentary on Apple's new operating system has focused on its streamlined looks. They are indeed a sight to behold, especially compared with the relatively drab environments of Mac OS 9 and Windows 98 or the gaudy, neon-lighted Windows XP. But what I really miss when I switch to OS 9 is the way X controls programs running on it, rather than the other way around.
If an e-mail program is filtering a batch of messages or a Web browser is ingesting a graphics-clogged page, OS X won't let that interrupt other things on the computer. And if the e-mail or Web applications crash, X quietly shuts them down, allowing everything else to continue without interruption.
Some actions in OS X take more time than under OS 9 -- impatient users have nicknamed the spinning-ball cursor that indicates an ongoing task "the Technicolor pizza of death." But OS X is still faster overall, because I don't need to reboot it every other day.
That is what Apple had been promising users since 1995, and that's what makes OS X worth using today.
This stability comes from a foundation alien to the traditional Mac platform. OS X is built on top of Berkeley Software Distribution Unix, a server-strength operating system that dates to the late 1970s.
Since OS X shipped, this heritage has played out in ways I hadn't expected. Unix is alternately renowned and scorned for the way it makes just about any computing task possible -- provided you know the right command-line syntax.
OS X puts that power at the disposal of ordinary humans. If you want to set up your machine as a Web server or allow remote access via the encrypted "SSH" protocol, just click a button in a control panel. This is Unix done right.
But at the same time, OS X also shows troubling signs of cross-contamination from traditional Unix. Many users were annoyed to find out that moving some applications from their regular locations would cause Apple's updaters to overlook them.
That's the Mac OS done wrong. A Mac is supposed to let you relocate and rename things at will and adapt to your behavior accordingly.
Apple also has users worried about OS X's reliance on file-name extensions (.doc, .rtf, .gif and so on) to identify file types. This objection sounds picayune, but it's sound -- file-name extensions may be necessary on documents shared with PC users, but overall they are a much-cruder technique than the "type and creator" tags Mac OS 9 embeds in individual files.
Meanwhile, a year's worth of updates to OS X have filled many of the initial gaps in the operating system's repertoire, but it's still a few cards short of a full deck. Three examples:
-- It lacks OS 9's "spring-loaded folders," which let you quickly dive through the file system, jumping from folder to folder without having to open new windows.
-- It won't let you set up your computer as the hub of an 802.11b wireless network; instead, you have to buy a separate AirPort base station to do the job.
-- It doesn't support the most flexible kind of CD recording -- packet writing, which lets you add or delete files from a rewriteable disc without having to erase entire segments of the CD.
Third-party developers have their own to-do list. A year after the first release of OS X, the single biggest weakness of the operating system is the software that runs natively on it.
A surprising number of Mac programs are either unavailable on OS X -- the Quark XPress desktop-publishing program, RealNetworks' media-player software, the Nisus Writer word processor -- or are still in testing, such as Qualcomm's Eudora e-mail client and the Palm Desktop personal-organizer software.
And too many peripherals are still waiting for software drivers that will let OS X talk to them. Many older printers don't work in X, and the situation is even uglier with scanners.
Mac users can, however, choose from a steadily increasing pool of new OS X applications that show off what this system can do. Some of the best work has come from smaller developers, who have had the freedom of starting from scratch instead of rewriting older software.
It's their larger counterparts that have been slower to move to OS X. They have been even tardier about taking advantage of such X-only niceties as "services" -- a way to pipe data, such as a paragraph of text or an image, from one program to another -- and "bundles," which wrap a program and its supporting files into one easily movable object.
Apple, however, says that the second wave of OS X applications will cover many of those bases. After all, there's a whole new year in front of us.
Living with technology, or trying to?
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