OS X: A Major Intro in a Minor Key

The Mac's new operating system is about to go public with very little hoopla. Why? To give the market time to catch up

By Charles Haddad

It's bound to be one of the quietest new-product introductions in memory. On Mar. 24, Apple Computer is introducing OS X, the new operating system for the Mac. But there will be no barrage of flashy television ads with Hollywood stars promoting its arrival in stores. Nor are you likely to see much mention of OS X in the popular press. Apple isn't even installing its hugely important new operating system on the models it's shipping right now.

If I didn't know better, I'd say Apple was treating OS X like an illegitimate child who gets spirited away to a distant relative. But Steve Jobs & Co. have nothing to be ashamed of. Just the opposite. OS X is a fine piece of work, and Apple's stealth campaign is a wise choice. You see, OS X is way ahead of the cart. It can run most of the software already out there, but there isn't much code written yet that can tap its new powers, nor will there be until at least the summer. In addition, there are many Macs that won't be able to handle OS X. Its requires a monstrous suggested minimum of 128 megabytes of RAM.

So why, then, is Apple releasing OS X so far out ahead of the market? I believe it's because the company understands that it won't be an easy sell. And I'm not just talking about the RAM requirements and lack of jazzy new software. OS X will take some explaining to average users.


  I'm thinking of an artist friend who just bought an iMac and loves it. But when I excitedly told her about the coming of OS X she gave me a look of horror. "I'm just getting used to the way my Mac works," she stammered. My friend recoiled at the thought of having to learn a whole new system.

In that, I'm afraid, she isn't alone. For most people, the Mac works well enough as it is. Sure, OS X's throbbing colored buttons and photo-real graphics are cool -- but maybe not cool enough to get people to shell out $129 for a new operating system. And that's just the start. Not many average users I know have the requisite 128 megabytes of RAM, which means they'll have to figure additional memory into the cost of upgrading to OS X. For example, to upgrade a G3 PowerBook would run about $64.

Winning over people like my artist friend will take time. That's why Apple's approach makes sense. Its first target is the trade and special-interest press. We've been invited to what I affectionately call "reeducation" camps at company headquarters. Here, we'll learn to love the new system under the reassuring guidance of Apple's OS X gurus. And then we'll go forth and spread the gospel. Or something like that.

Apple is letting users get acquainted with OS X at their leisure. Its Web site is now packed with well-written articles about OS X, lists of coming software, and a growing number of downloadable betas of OS X software.


  All this is part of an effort to build a groundswell for OS X in the next six months. By then, the company hopes, some good new applications will be on the market that'll make OS X a compelling buy. Right now, despite the list of 40 apps under development on the Apple site, I think the software makers' support is still up in the air. I've been carpet-bombed with e-mail in the past griping about my questioning of developer support, but I think skepticism is warranted until we see a critical mass of new OS X-friendly software.

Deciding whether or not to write software for OS X is a tough call for Mac developers. Most of them are small and can't afford the cost of creating a new version -- or a new product -- based on a system that might flop. Introducing a new OS is no small thing, especially in this day, when Windows has become the standard on most of the world's PCs.

The good news is that some of the biggest and most important developers, including Corel, Aladdin, and Microsoft, have signaled they will develop OS X versions of their applications. The bad news is that Microsoft won't have an OS X version of its all-powerful suite of office applications until at least the fall. It's hard to imagine users flocking to OS X without Microsoft applications upgraded for the operating system.

That's why Mar. 24 will come and go without much fanfare by Apple Computer. The time to roll out the red carpet and sound the trumpets will come later, when OS X wins grassroots support on its own merits.

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

Edited by Thane Peterson

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