By Charles Haddad Now the trackball hits the mousepad. This past Saturday, Apple released what I consider the first true commercial release of its new operating system, OS X Version 10.1. And it is truly a triumph. Gone are the maddening glitches in speed, performance, and stability. No longer is OS X just for the first-adopters and professionals with a Mac to spare as a lab.
At long last, I can recommend it to all Mac users -- the writers, artists, small-businesspeople, animators, students, and teachers who use Macs for everything from gaming to Web browsing. OS X today is truly a stunning piece of engineering, beautiful to behold, fun to use, and as sturdy as any operating system I've ever seen.
Now, Apple's challenge shifts from engineering to marketing. Will the bulk of Mac users embrace OS X 10.1? Stores are distributing free copies of the upgrade to current OS X users through Oct. 31, which should give it a boost. If the new operating system does take off, it will become a bonanza for Apple, one that propels the company out of its current downslide in sales and earnings.
HARDWARE HOOK. What will reignite growth isn't the $129 price of OS X, although that could amount to a hefty piece of change. Apple has never made most of its money from software -- it's just the bait, not the hook. Real profitability comes from selling hardware.
And many users switching to OS X will need to upgrade their computers. Some will just have to add RAM. (I wouldn't recommend trying OS X with less than 128 megabytes.) But many others will have to buy new machines to get the necessary firepower to run OS X. It won't run on any Mac with less than a G3 microprocessor, and not even all of them will work. OS X won't run, for example, on a G3 PowerBook.
All in all, people without such machines represent a substantial pool of users. But my guess is that they're not going to deluge CompUSA with requests for OS X. Rather, their switchover will more resemble a steady drizzle over several years.
HUNKERING DOWN. Here's my reasoning: People are just downright spooked after the destruction of the World Trade Center. I know hardened road warriors who are taking the train by choice. That tells me people are hunkered down, unwilling to try new things.
Plus, most users are happy enough with their Macs. Sure, they wish the Mac didn't crash quite so often and that figuring out how to use Microsoft Office was easier. But such problems are irksome, not insufferable. They beat having to learn a whole new system right now. And why bother to do that when your favorite software has yet to be rewritten to make the best use of OS X?
Sure, Apple CEO Steve Jobs announced at last week's Seybold publishing-industry trade show in San Francisco that 1,400 programs have been released for OS X. That sounds like a healthy number, but don't be fooled. Plenty of crucial programs are missing from Jobs's list -- such as Microsoft Office and Adobe's GoLive.
UNNEEDED CAUTION. Developers are slowly converting their programs to the new operating system. An OS X version of Office is due in November and GoLive sometime after that. When such programs hit the market, working well and offering enticing new features, users will gradually begin to switch. Heck, even Apple is hedging its bets right now. Although it's installed at the factory, OS X still isn't the default operating system on new Macs, and I think that's wise. Apple is letting users decide when to switch over.
I, however, have never been much for caution. And in the case of OS X, caution is no longer needed. Version 10.1 delivers as promised. Classic, the application within OS X that runs old programs, launches in less than 20 seconds, rather than the minutes it took with the first version of OS X.
Version 10.1 runs most software well. Among the exceptions are Quicken, which won't launch at all in Classic, though Intuit has released a new version that runs in OS X. So to use Quicken in OS X, you have to buy the new version. That's a bit too convenient for Quicken, if you ask me.
UNANCHORED DOCK. The latest version of OS X has also filled some gaping holes in its feature list. Now you can play DVD movies and burn files onto DVD-rewritable disks. Also welcome is the ability to move a new toolbar, called the Dock, off the bottom of the screen. And for the experts, Apple has improved the features of its programming language, AppleScript.
While seemingly small and unimportant in themselves, these improvements demonstrate that Apple has both the ability and the commitment to make OS X a first-rate operating system. No more endless delays, promises unfulfilled, and strategic U-turns. Users can bank on OS X powering the Mac far into the future. Haddad, Atlanta-based correspondent for BusinessWeek, is a longtime Apple Computer buff. Follow his weekly Byte of the Apple column, only on BW Online