OS X Gets Its Finishing Touches

Version 10.1 of Apple's new operating system is everything the original should have been from the start

By Stephen H. Wildstrom

When Apple Computer shipped its long-awaited OS X operating system last spring, I criticized the company for releasing it prematurely (see BW, 4/16/01, "Apple's OS X: Don't Bite Yet"). Now, though, Mac owners -- both those who waited and those who have struggled with the cranky initial release of X (as in 10) for the past six months -- are being rewarded. OS X Version 10.1 is everything the operating system should have been in the first place. And equally important, key Mac software vendors including Microsoft, Adobe, and Macromedia, are finally bringing out products designed for the new system.

The symptoms of the original OS X's unfinished state were painfully obvious. You couldn't record a CD or play a DVD. Many printers didn't work. And routine tasks such as changing the size of a window took forever, an indication that Apple had cut short its performance tuning, the tedious final step of software development.

Version 10.1 fixes these problems. Everything that's supposed to work does work, all the features are available, and performance is downright snappy. Owners of the newest Macs with DVD recorders can even create data DVDs, though the iDVD software OS X users need to create videodisks for DVD players isn't ready yet.


  Apple also made some important concessions to ease the transition from older versions of Mac system software to OS X's radically new architecture and user interface. For example, the original release provided no way to connect to older Macs or servers using Apple's venerable AppleTalk networking protocol. This made it painful to integrate OS X machines into existing networks. But in 10.1, AppleTalk support is back, although Apple continues to urge a move toward more modern methods of networking.

Other changes include giving users the option of moving the "dock" -- a display of running programs somewhat like the Windows taskbar -- to locations other than the bottom of the screen and a simple way to customize the menu bars that appear at the top of windows.

A less obvious, but very significant change, is in the handling of "extensions," the three characters to the right of a period that are used in Windows to associate a data file with a specific application. Although Macs continue to use their own system for identifying file types, OS X now understands extensions and handles them properly, making it much easier to exchange files between Mac and Windows computers. Of particular help to Web designers, who need to keep track of extensions, is a setting that displays extensions with all file names in the Finder, the Mac's file manager.


  Beyond the glitches in the operating system itself, a lack of programs designed to run under OS X has given Mac owners little incentive to upgrade. Although most older programs can run in OS X's "Classic" mode, you pay a penalty both in performance and in having to work simultaneously with the old and new user interfaces.

Now, the software situation is finally starting to improve. Intuit is shipping Quicken for the new OS, and Procreate has released Painter 7. Microsoft has moved into large-scale testing of its impressive new Office v.X for OS X. And at the Adobe Seybold San Francisco trade show on Sept. 24, Adobe Systems announced OS X versions of its Illustrator 10 drawing program and its InDesign 2.0 publishing system. But such key professional applications as Adobe Photoshop and Macromedia DreamWeaver still run only in Classic mode.

Until more applications ship, it may not be time for most Mac users to switch to OS X as their primary system. Apple itself seems to agree: All new Macs ship with both OS X and OS 9.2 loaded, but 9.2 is the default active system. (Fortunately, it's very easy to switch back and forth between them.) Philip Schiller, Apple vice-president for product marketing, says the company originally planned a 12-month transition to OS X and that the decision to make X the default on new Macs will come before the new system's first birthday next March.

OS X Version 10.1 will be available at retail on Sept. 30 for $129. People who purchased an earlier version can get a free upgrade from Apple retailers or can order a CD directly from Apple for $19.95 in shipping and handling.

Wildstrom is Technology & You columnist for BusinessWeek. Follow his Flash Product Reviews, only on BW Online