OS X: Thinking Too Different?

The MacWorld crowd wasn't wowed. Worse, developers are reluctant to rewrite applications. Apple has a problem

By Charles Haddad

It was an impressive gathering of the faithful. Hundreds crowded into an open theater at MacWorld Expo last week to watch Apple's presentation of OS X, the new operating system scheduled for release on Mar. 24. What occurred next, however, must have chilled the Apple executives looking on -- to their very core.

No matter how much the black-shirted Apple presenter trumpeted OS X as "tremendous" and "stunning," the crowd watched in glum silence as he ran the new software through its seemingly awe-inspiring paces. "Come on," he pleaded, as QuickTime movies continued to play even while he dragged them around the screen. "That deserves at least a few oohs and ahs." But the intractable crowd remained silent until he pointed out that the familiar Apple icon -- now colored blue -- had been returned to the far left-hand corner of the screen. At last, they cheered.

It looks like Mac users aren't ready to "think different," as the now-famous Apple ad campaign adjures.


  I thought OS X's unenthusiastic reception must be a fluke. Maybe the San Francisco crowd hadn't had enough coffee -- or maybe they had too much. Surely, after years of griping about Mac's 17-year-old operating system, users would embrace OS X's flashy graphics, rock-solid stability, and new power features, I thought.

So, I stayed and watched as Apple presenters ran the demo again and again throughout the day. And nearly every time, the morning's depressing scene was replayed. Hundreds showed up for the presentations. They cheered the new hardware, which includes an inch-thick titanium-cased PowerBook, as well as desktop systems with built-in CD burners. But the cheers died out when OS X took center stage.

After thinking about it, I'm forced to confess -- much as I hate to -- that Mac enthusiasts have become very comfortable in our old age. Sure, the current OS is deeply flawed, but we love it the way we would an eccentric old aunt. Yeah, more stability would be nice -- but at what price? Apparently, a complete reworking of our beloved old operating system is too expensive, at least for now, so Apple wants us to embrace OS X as an alternative.


  The company is pulling out the stops in its attempt to woo us. While none of the execs will admit it, they act as if they know that OS X is a tough sell. To their credit, Apple engineers have listened to user complaints and put back several features popular in current Macs, such as the Apple menu, with its recent-document and recent-application commands, and the ability to drill through folders without opening them up.

Apple is also working the developer community hard, calling even the smallest of them, which the company has long ignored. It's urging them to start rewriting their applications for OS X, which will require them to learn a new computer language Apple calls "cocoa." The company swears cocoa is so easy to learn and use that even amateurs will be able to write software. And in a huge victory for Apple, Microsoft made it official at MacWorld that it would rewrite its dominant suite of applications in cocoa. OS X would be dead in the water without Microsoft's support.

But what Microsoft didn't announce but has told some partners is that it hasn't even begun the massive job of rewriting Word, Excel, and Entourage for OS X. The problem: Apple has yet to release a finished set of cocoa software tools. Without them, developers can't write applications for OS X. It's not surprising, then, that many other developers are hanging back. In part, they're awaiting a final toolkit, but they're not eager to learn a whole new computer language -­ no matter how slight the learning curve. So, when OS X ships, there'll be precious little software that can take advantage of the product's new interface and power features.


  That doesn't make OS X a very compelling buy, at least initially. Apple is stepping into the breach, writing some impressive new programs it hopes will lure users to OS X. Two of them were released at MacWorld. One, called iTunes, lets you take songs off CDs or download them from the Internet, and then organize and play them on your computer or MP3 player. Another new program, iDVD, does the same with digital movies. You can burn up to 60 minutes of video onto a DVD. Both iTunes and iDVD are free.

But, alas, I don't think either iTunes or iDVD will be enough to win a critical mass of followers for OS X. For that to happen, the bulk of Mac developers will have to write new programs as exciting as iTunes and iDVD. I think Jobs and company are in for the fight of their lives in establishing OS X as the standard in the Mac community.

Haddad, Atlanta-based correspondent for Business Week, is a long-time Apple Computer buff. Follow his weekly Byte of the Apple column, only on BW Online

Edited by Patricia O'Connell

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.