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OS X-Cellent Progress

By Charles Haddad If online discussion boards and my e-mail are any indication, OS X has already won the hearts of a cadre of hard-core users. They forgive OS X its eccentricities and failings the way a doting teacher excuses the occasional bumblings of a child prodigy. Never mind that OS X can't yet burn CDs or recognize scanners -- someday it will do all this and much more. "I love OS X, but I'll be the first to admit it has flaws," David Nelson confessed to the bulletin board of online magazine Mac Observer.

Will the rest of us grow to love OS X? I think so -- eventually. OS X is following the same slow trajectory as the original Mac. At first, that huggable little cube of computer wasn't much more than a toy. But a hard-core group of enthusiasts loved it so much they began to write great software that made the Mac revolutionary in its usefulness.

MORE SPEED. The same is beginning to happen with OS X. The first version was shipped with only a few finished applications written by Apple. They included a word processor, an address book, and a graphics viewer. Not even AppleWorks, the company's suite of productivity software, had been rewritten for OS X.

Just as well, if you ask me. Unless you had plenty of RAM, OS X ran about as fast as coagulated molasses. Even simple tasks, such as resizing windows, were painfully slow. "It was a toy," says graphic designer Homer Bradshaw. "OS X crashed on me all the time." Plus, OS X wouldn't work with many printers and other devices.

Unbowed by these complaints, Apple programmers have kept plugging away to improve OS X, releasing two upgrades since March. Today, OS X runs a little faster, especially on Apple's most powerful machines. AppleWorks is now OS X-compatible. But the system is still sluggish and lacks such basic features as the ability to burn CDs and scan. Nor have the big developers weighed in yet with versions that run native in OS X. Right now, users must run the likes of Office and Photoshop in a separate shell called Classic.

Nor will OS X work with AOL's Instant Message service, which is very popular among Mac users. "I have no reason to use OS X, since none of my applications will run in anything but Classic, and that's just too much of a pain," says animator Chuck Olsen.

SOLID AND STABLE. Yet scores of others have hung in there, desperate to believe that OS X will be the next great thing. Why? For one thing, it's just so darn pretty, with its rounded corners, soft-blue throbbing buttons, and shadowed windows. It's also more stable than a 50-year marriage. Even Microsoft's jaded programmers marvel at its sure-footedness. "It's nearly impossible to crash -- and believe me, we've tried," a Redmond programmer confided in me at the recent MacWorld show in New York.

It's this combination of beauty and microprocessing brawn that's winning over developers, inspiring them to design ever more powerful software. Now they dream of creating a Web browser that doesn't crash every day, and of streaming video that streams in real time. This is the potential of OS X in coming years, if not months.

Not all developers are enamored with OS X. A sizable minority continues to gripe that Apple has failed to provide a reliable set of programming tools to make finished applications. In part, the problem is that OS X remains a work in progress. Still, I'm betting that most of this griping will subside as Apple finalizes OS X and releases a finished set of programming tools and guidelines.

MICROSOFT GETS INTERESTED. Luckily, some developers aren't waiting. That's especially true of that small but hardy band versed in OS X's Cocoa programming environment. For these programmers, OS X is a second coming. They had originally hitched their wagon to Apple CEO Steve Jobs' NeXT development platform and it never took off. Now that Jobs has retooled his NeXT OS into OS X, Cocoa programmers are off and running, cranking out new applications. OmniGroup is already selling at least three: an outliner, a Web browser, and a schematic diagramer.

Now, the minnows are inspiring the whales. Microsoft plans to release an OS X version of Office in the fall. It will hit the market as Apple releases its third upgrade to OS X, one that's expected to really boost speed and performance.

All this activity is exciting and has, of course, rekindled the darkest fantasy of all Mac enthusiasts: seizing control of personal computing from Windows -- or Windoze, as the firebrands among us love to call it. I doubt the throbbing blue orbs of OS X will mesmerize the Windows masses. But it will revitalize the Mac for its 25 million users, and that's good enough for me. Haddad, Atlanta-based correspondent for BusinessWeek, is a long-time Apple Computer buff. Follow his weekly Byte of the Apple column, only on BW Online

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