By Charles Haddad Does Steve Jobs know how to grab you by the lapels or what? He kicked off Apple's weeklong Worldwide Developer's Conference (WWDC) on May 6 in San Jose, Calif., with smoke, organ music, and, yes, a silver casket.
Laid-out inside was an oversized shrink-wrapped box for OS 9. "Mac OS 9 was a friend to all of us," Jobs deadpanned, standing over the coffin. "We are here today to mourn his passing. He's now in the great bit bucket in the sky." No doubt Jobs's point was this: The 25,000 developers gathered for the annual conference should write for OS X -- and OS X alone.
Still, I couldn't help but thinking something else: It could have just as easily been Apple itself lay at rest in that box. The company was imploding rapidly several years back before Jobs returned as CEO. He has resurrected Apple, especially in the past two years, with big gambles on high-profile products. Really, he had no choice. Without a couple of splashy hits, Apple would have been a goner.
NO EASY FEAT. Still, any one of the moves he made ?- from introducing a brand-new operating system to flat-screen Macs -? could have misfired. Indeed, some groundbreaking models did, such as the ill-fated Cube. Thankfully, the Cube's failure didn't turn off Mac users as a group nor the PC market as a whole.
Jobs's biggest gamble was introducing a new operating system while breaking with traditional hardware design standards. Many have come to grief trying the same feat. Former Apple executive Jean-Louis Gassee attempted in the late 1990s to couple his stunningly beautiful BeOS operating system with a new computer built especially for it, but he eventually sold out to Palm. Nobody has succeeded in establishing a new all-in-one-computer since, well, Jobs himself with the original Mac back in the late 1980s.
And OS X is starting to take off. Consider a few numbers. At the WWDC, Jobs announced that Apple has shipped 3 million Macs with OS X installed. That doesn't mean every one of those buyers is using OS X, since Macs come with OS 9 installed, too. But Mac newsletter publisher Matt Deatherage estimates that about half of those buyers are running OS X. In addition, Apple says it has sold separately 1 million copies of OS X.
PRETTY FACE FOR UNIX. While that's not much, given the 25 million Mac users worldwide, those numbers do represent a good beginning. Better yet, Deatherage estimates that 50% of all Macs will be running OS X by this time next year. Already Apple is the leading seller of Unix-based systems, since OS X is built on Unix.
That's pretty ironic. Remember, Unix was designed to run workstation computers at big companies and universities. It was the ultimate geek system, while the Mac was originally designed as the anti-geek computer. But now Apple has slapped a beautiful and easy-to-use new face on Unix with OS X, in essence giving an old snook a new look, as they say in New York.
With OS X, the best is yet to come. By summer's end, Apple will add a slew of new features. Some are much-needed adaptations from OS 9, such as spring-loaded folders that let you navigate through your hard disk just by clicking on its icon. Apple will also boost performance with a new scheme for off-loading graphics processing to the Mac's built-in video cards. That will free more power to run applications, speeding up everything from scrolling to drawing OS X's transparent windows.
A MUST-HAVE. And Apple has addressed complaints that OS X's e-mail features are weaker than those in Microsoft's Outlook and Entourage programs. For starters, it has built in a new automatic instant-messaging service called iChat. It will let you keep buddy lists and turn e-mail into live chats. Plus, it works with AOL Instant Messenger.
Apple has also beefed up its address-book feature. Now it will serve as a universal database of addresses for all programs, automatically filling in e-mail addresses and phone numbers. And it'll be able to send business-card information to cell phones and PDAs that support the vCard protocol, which is rapidly becoming the standard across devices.
These are the kind of features that will make OS X a must-have system, the kinds of features that OS 9 didn't have -? and never would. Jobs is right: OS 9 represents a technological era that has come and gone. May it rest in peace. 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