By Charles Haddad It was a simple enough question -- yet the answer spoke volumes at the recent Macworld in San Francisco. Gazing out at the hundreds of Mac devotees crowded into the ballroom of the Moscone Convention Center, ace Mac troubleshooter Ted Landau wanted to know who had adopted OS X as their new operating system. Nearly every hand in the room shot up. A year ago, the same question had drawn barely five fingers.
To me, that sea of raised hands is a good omen and signals a critical turning point for Apple and its estimated estimated 25 million followers. After nearly a decade of trying to develop a successor to its original operating system, Apple has finally found a winner. Slowly but steadily, users seem to be embracing it.
As of yet, there's no official count. Apple won't disclose either sales of OS X or the number of users switching from OS 9. Nor has any respectable third-party industry consultant such as IDC released any statistics about OS X's rate of adoption. But the anecdotal evidence is starting to mount, and you can count me among the believers. (For more on Apple and OS X, see BW Online's Special Report, 1/22/02, "The Future of Apple".)
NO FEAR NOW. So many Macs were running OS X during Macworld, the cavernous hall glowed aqua blue. OS X powered nearly every booth at the show, including the one-seaters in the convention's back alleys. What a change from last year's show. Back then, OS X was available only in beta, and most developers regarded it with fear and loathing.
Few of them believed that Apple could pull off switching the bulk of its users to OS X. They still felt burned from the '90s, when Apple stumbled from one strategy to the next in trying to build a successor to its original operating system. And fewer still were ready to invest the time or money to rewrite their software for OS X.
Apple is a different company today. It has largely delivered as promised with OS X, rolling out the commercial version on schedule and releasing increasingly sophisticated upgrades. That success has finally persuaded developers to write OS X versions of their software.
STILL MISSING. Nearly every exhibitor at MacWorld had a finished version or a beta software made for OS X. The list includes such influential developers as Microsoft, Connectix, Casady & Greene, Intuit, and Maya. The one big name still missing is Adobe, but the company is in the final stage of finishing an OS X version of its important PhotoShop application.
What's driving the conversion? Users. They're snapping up OS X products, if bulging shopping bags are any indication. It was hard to find a shopper who hadn't scooped up the OS X version of Office or the game Myth III. Every spare Mac with an Internet connection was being used to download the new Apple OS X application, iPhoto.
OS X has moved beyond the chicken-and-egg syndrome that hampers the adoption of any new technology. So encouraged is Apple that it has finally decided to make OS X the default operating system on all new Macs beginning at the end of January. (Every new Mac now includes OS X, but OS 9 is still the default system, leaving it up to the user to switch to OS X.)
A FEW BUGS. This is a potentially huge change. A whole new generation of Mac users -- whether it be kids getting their first iMac at home or teenagers packing an iBook for college -- will know only OS X. Their eyes will glaze when hearing arguments about whether it measures up to OS 9. What they'll care about is whether OS X can download files, connect wirelessly, play music and videos, and run Microsoft Office as well as any Windows machine. The answer to all those questions, even in this early-stage OS X, is a resounding yes.
OS X still has some bugs to work out. Critics such as Henry Norr at the San Francisco Chronicle are right when they say it lacks many of OS 9's conveniences, such as spring-loaded folders and reliable ways to back up files. But these are minor problems that Apple can and will fix over time.
I think the day is quickly approaching when the OS 9 will become like vinyl records and cassette tapes -- relics fondly remembered as the breakthrough products of their day. And to this old veteran, that's a happy ending -- and a good beginning. Haddad, Atlanta-based correspondent for BusinessWeek, is a long-time Apple Computer buff. Follow his weekly Byte of the Apple column, only on BusinessWeek Online