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Why Apple Can't Pull the Plug on OS 9

By Charles Haddad Has the Mac's classic operating system become like Ole Betsy, a beloved but aging workhorse that must now be put out to pasture? If you ask me, this Ole Betsy has stayed around way past her prime. Still, she ain't a-going out to graze on the lower 40 acres any time soon.

The reason, as is often the case in life and business, is an issue of timing. Today, too many users -- and too many programs -- are still dependent on OS 9, the last version of the original Mac operating system. No doubt Apple would love to retire OS 9 now. The company has spent the better part of the last eight years trying to develop a successor to its classic operating system. It was a quest that became Apple's Vietnam, a quagmire that helped to topple the three chief executives who preceded Steve Jobs' current reign. A big reason Jobs reascended to the throne was because he vowed to get a new operating system out of the lab.

DUAL DRAIN. Now OS X is out, works brilliantly, and yet Apple won't designate it as the default system on new Macs. That leaves the company maintaining two separate operating systems on every new Mac. It's a nifty engineering trick, for sure. But Microsoft has done the same thing for more than 16 years, maintaining DOS for millions of users who -- don't ask me why -- still swear by it. Surely Apple engineers are the equal of those at Microsoft.

For Apple, though, it's not a question of talent but resources. The company doesn't have Microsoft's manpower or money. Indeed, Jobs has worked hard to whittle down Apple's mandate to a couple of core technologies and then develop the heck out of them. It has been a winning strategy, producing such home runs as the iMac, the titanium PowerBook, iTunes, and iMovie.

An increasingly antiquated operating system doesn't fit that focused strategy. Not only is it a drain on engineering talent, it's also a distraction the company can ill afford. And dual operating systems, which differ in use and style, will confuse a lot of users in the long run. Not to mention the headache they'll give the IT people charged with maintaining Macs at schools and companies.

Still, Apple doesn't dare to kill off OS 9 just yet. So far, it's largely the first adopters who have embraced OS X. Most lay users are still holding back. They're interested, all right -- but unwilling either to buy a new operating system -- or to learn one. And you can't blame them. There's no real reason to switch until widely used programs such as Microsoft Office and Adobe Photoshop release OS X versions.

DEFECTION DANGER. Such versions are coming. But right now, many, if not most, of the applications available for OS X are either shareware or from small companies. That's great, reflecting a renewed spirit of innovation. But these are not the programs that will lure the mass of Mac users to OS X.

There's also an undertow of niche applications that, while discontinued or not upgraded for years, are still used by millions of users. These are programs that run dentist offices, law practices, or graphic houses. If Apple stops supporting OS 9 now, many of these users may jump ship to Windows, which has plenty of specialty developers. Apple really has no choice but to wait and see if OS X replacements spring up for these niche programs.

For more than a year, Apple has been cajoling and browbeating developers to stop writing for the old OS. Nonetheless, the switchover has been slow. Many developers have been waiting for Apple to release a complete and final set of OS X instructions (known as a toolkit in developer parlance). This toolkit guides developers in how to design software for OS X. True, OS X's Cocoa language isn't new, and the handful of developers who use it, such as OmniGroup, jumped on the bandwagon first. But the lion's share of Mac developers are unfamiliar with Cocoa. It will take them a while not only to learn Cocoa but to get comfortable with it, no matter how much easier Cocoa is to use. That's just beginning to occur now.

GROWING MOVE. When, then, will OS X hit critical mass? My guess is in about 18 months. The move will begin in earnest in November when Microsoft releases its OS X version of Office, by far the best selling software for the Mac. If Office X is stable and easy to use, users will gradually begin switching over. I say gradually because Microsoft is asking a whopping $450 for the full version and nearly $300 to upgrade. The OS X version of Office may be beautiful, but in this case, looks aren't everything. Users will want a lot of new features to justify the high price -- and I don't know if OS X will offer that, at least in the first version.

Nonetheless, I see a day when I'll be jostling a granddaughter on my knee and retelling how my Mac used to crash every time I tried to download a video clip off the Internet. "Go on, grandpa," she'll say, "you're making that up." Sadly, old timers will know I'm not. Haddad, Atlanta-based correspondent for BusinessWeek, is a longtime Apple Computer buff. Follow his weekly Byte of the Apple column, only on BW Online

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