By Charles Haddad
Ah, if only the rest of the world were like Finland. Its climate may rival the inside of your freezer, but the Finns have a warm spot for the Mac. As soon as it went on sale in late March, Apple's new operating system, OS X, quickly sold out in the icy Scandinavian country. Now dour Finns are hanging out in Internet newsgroups, sealskin earflap hats in hand, hoping to get a peak. As one Finn with a sense of humor put it online, "Hey, brother, can you spare a copy of OS X?"
Are Finns the groundhogs of the Mac community, signaling an early thaw for OS X? Well, it's already nearly sold out in Britain, too. And so far, reviews in the U.S. have been strong. San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and Chicago Tribune all gave OS X a thumbs-up during the first week of its launch. Even PC magazine declared OS X "a great leap forward." It looks like that one-day "reeducation" camp, in which Apple corralled computer journalists from around the world into its small on-site theater, really paid off. Some U.S. stores are reporting 60% sales of their copies within the first weekend.
But strong initial sales don't necessarily signal strong user approval. We reviewers, including yours truly, may love OS X. But how do regular users feel? To find out what the people say, I spent a week cruising newsgroups across the Net, visiting the likes of MacFixit, MacCentral, and Applelinks. What I found, in addition to disgruntled Finns, was a Mac community about equally divided on OS X. Some still are left cold. Some raved that OS X was the greatest thing since the invention of the $3.50 latte. "I've found a new soul mate," purred one excited Mac user.
Of course, given our fondness as a community for grousing, there were no shortage of complaints. Examples include such rants as: "OS X crashed my entire network," "I hate the new throbbing water drop look-and-feel of the system," and "My seven-year-old Mac SE runs faster than OS X. Wah, I want back my old Apple Menu."
How can the same operating system win cuddles from one user and brickbats from another? I was one puzzled critic at the start of the week, but I soon began to discern some patterns. For one, it seems OS X works better on some Macs than others. Beige G3s, Cubes, and early iMacs seem to gag on the thing. Don't try installing it on one of those machines without first checking the postings at a site such as MacFixit.
Another consistent complaint was sluggish performance. Many concluded that OS X zips along only on the latest G4 Macs. Others discovered you could improve performance on older G3 models by performing something called a clean install, which clears your system of any previous preferences or software when installing OS X. And its ability to work with devices such as printers and Zip drives seems hit-and-miss.
But as the week wore on, something funny began to happen. Slowly but surely, like an ingratiating salesman with a warm smile and a hardy handshake, OS X began to win over the skeptical. As they grew more familiar with its new way of doing things, complainers began to praise the power and reliability of the operating system. Confessed one newsgroup writer, "At first, I personally found X very foreign and hard to navigate. After customizing it, I started to appreciate how great it really is."
That's not to say OS X is for everyone. There was a general consensus that, for right now, only those with Macs to spare should install it. You're tempting fate to use OS X on any job-critical Mac or network. "It crashed my Mac, it crashed the Mac next to me, and by the end of the week, it had taken down the network in our small ad shop," groused one user. But tellingly, he added, "Don't get me wrong. I'm sticking with OS X. It's the future, and we all better face up to it."
That sounds fatalistic, but it shouldn't. OS X is incredibly strong and stable for the first commercial release of a new operating system, at least based on the hundreds of postings I read last week. Apple is reading these postings, too. And as it always has, the company's engineers will continue to perfect OS X.
Sales could pick up this summer, because many reviewers are urging shoppers to wait until July. That's when more software will be adapted to the new system. As someone with the handle Macfucius put it so elegantly on MacFixit: "Come back again in 90 days, your whining will be changed to praise." Ninety days is a little optimistic, if you ask me. But there's no question Apple has released a strong first version of OS X, and it will only grow stronger in the coming year.
Haddad, Atlanta-based correspondent for BusinessWeek, is a longtime Apple Computer buff. Follow his weekly Byte of the Apple column, only on BW Online
Edited by Thane Peterson