Apple's OS X: Don't Bite Yet

The new operating system is a terrific achievement, but it's a work in progress

What does Apple Computer (AAPL ) know that you don't? OS X (meaning 10) is the most extensive revision of Apple's core software since the Mac made its debut in 1984. Although it went on sale on Mar. 25, Apple won't ship new Macs with OS X loaded until sometime this summer. It turns out there's a good reason for this, and I strongly urge most Mac owners to hold off.

That said, OS X is a great technical achievement. Apple has succeeded in putting a face that's as friendly and easy-to-use as we've come to expect from a Mac on a rock-solid operating system. The result is a handsome product that resists crashing and easily performs many tasks simultaneously. OS X includes a number of Windows-like features, including a "dock" at the screen's bottom that shows icons of running programs and a toolbar on every window. Veteran Mac users will find some of the changes disconcerting at first, but I think they'll come to like them.

So with all this promise, why not rush out and plunk down your $129 for a copy of OS X? Mainly because Apple sent it to market before it was ready. For example, nearly all Macs now on the market ship with either a DVD drive or a recordable-CD drive. But with OS X you can neither read DVDs nor write CDs because the "drivers," the critical bits of software that link hardware to the operating system, aren't finished. If you have one of the 40 or so printers currently supported by OS X, installation is essentially automatic, but if you have any of dozens of mostly older models, you are out of luck for now. Third-party mice work, but their scroll wheels and extra buttons don't. OS X is set up to install upgrades automatically over the Internet; early OS X customers will need that feature badly.

SPLIT PERSONALITY. The availability of software is an even bigger problem. Programs have to be completely rewritten to take full advantage of OS X, and key applications won't be updated for months. OS X can run most older programs, but when it does, the whole look and feel confusingly switches back to OS 9, with different methods for accessing files, printers, and network resources. Also, some features, such as playing a DVD movie or communicating with other Macs over an older AppleTalk network, require you to reboot with the older operating system--simple enough to do, but time-consuming.

It is hard to evaluate a new operating system without being able to run a range of applications. This is particularly true of OS X. One of its most attractive features, at least on paper, is a new approach to graphics display called Quartz that is based on Adobe's Acrobat technology. It should display better-quality text and graphics faster and should boost the Mac's already high standing as a tool for content creation. But without applications, it is meaningless. The "preview" version of Microsoft Internet Explorer 5.1 that comes with OS X refuses to display Acrobat files. Microsoft hopes to have a better version of IE available for download soon. Apple's built-in mail program did no better, turning an Acrobat attachment into gibberish.

The main appeal of OS X should be to professional Mac users, who are heavily concentrated in the graphics arts and creative media industries. But its advantages of power and stability disappear when run in classic mode. Microsoft plans to release Office for OS X this fall. Adobe has not said when it will ship OS X versions of Photoshop, the Premiere video editing program, the PageMaker and InDesign page layout applications, or other key professional tools.

OS X, with few apps and limited hardware support, is a bit like a Ferrari with a pint of gas: lovely to look at, but you can't really drive it anywhere. If you are a Mac tinkerer with $129 burning a hole in your pocket, give it a try. The rest of us should wait until Apple and independent software vendors finish the project.


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