The Dollars and Sense of OS X

Mac heads reluctant to spend $130 for the new operating system just can't spot a bargain. This triumph of the programmer's art is pure gold

By Charles Haddad

My fellow cheapskates, I feel for you. Really, I do. I know you want to upgrade to OS X but are racked with doubt. Is Apple's stunning new operating system really worth its $130 price tag? After all, that's enough to buy more than 10 different shareware versions of solitaire or keep yourself in beer and pizza for month.

And we all know $130 is just the beginning. Many will have to upgrade or buy new Macs. You need at least 128 megabytes of RAM and a G3 microprocessor to run OS X. It gets worse. Soon you'll be dragged down in a vortex of conspicuous consumption, buying the OS X versions of all your favorite programs. To quote Colonel Kurtz at the end of Apocalypse Now, "The horror, the horror!"


  In all the stories about OS X in the past 10 months I've yet to see one addressing a concern close to my piggy bank. So this week, I'm going to analyze OS X from the perspective of the pennywise. What I've concluded is that OS X really isn't such a bad deal. Now, before you run off to hide your stash of nickels, hear me out.

First, OS X is darn purty. I speak not as some fashion hound, as a peek inside my boudoir, with its collection of fraying 30-year-old tweed jackets, will reveal. I wouldn't know cashmere from rat fur. Still, even I can't resist admiring the stunning clarity of OS X's throbbing blue buttons and 3D photo-realistic icons. The desktop is so sharp that even a bat-eyes like me can enjoy using the tiny screen of an iBook.

Second, it's cost-effective. If time is money, then every computer, Mac or otherwise, is wasteful. How many countless hours have I sat fuming at a computer that, without warning, decided to take the day off? By now, that lost time must add up to months. But I fume no more with OS X. It's the most stable personal computer operating system I've ever seen. Not once in eight months of use has it crashed on me. Not once. In fact, I've had the opposite problem. A couple of times OS X refused to shut down, like a workaholic who doesn't know when to stop. I could write, surf the Web -- do anything but restart my iBook or shut it down.


  Third, you don't have to buy a lot of new software to use OS X. I've tested scores of current programs at this point and only a handful of them won't run in OS X. Sure, they all run a tad slower, because they're operating within a shell application dubbed Classic by Apple. But they did run -- and sometimes better than before. Nisus Writer 6 was always crashing on me in OS 9. Running in the Classic shell of OS X, the crashes have nearly vanished. Every program in Microsoft Office runs equally well.

Fourth, you couldn't buy a lot of new software for OS X, even if you wanted to -- at least not yet. There's a smattering of big commercial OS X releases, including Intuit's Quicken, AppleWorks, the Palm desktop, and Britannica and World Book encyclopedias. The next big release will be Microsoft Office, scheduled for mid-November. That should mark a quickening pace in the appearance of OS X versions of old software. But right now, most of the new programs for OS X are available only on the Net.

There are two key differences between the OS X versions of the big commercial programs and their online shareware equivalents. The first is price, with Office X retailing for a whopping $450 and $270 to just upgrade. Any tightwad worth his penny rolls would choke on that sum. In contrast, online software generally costs less than $100. The OmniGroup's most expensive OS X program, for example, retails online for $60.


  And most of the shareware programs are written in Cocoa, OS X's native language. Examples include OmniGroup's OmniWeb and OmniOutliner. You see the real future power of OS X with these programs. They're fast, stable, colorful, and full of new and interesting features.

For me, this Cocoa shareware is the best reason to upgrade. I may be cheap but I still love a good adventure. Consider OS X's $130 price tag as admission to a digital Cirque du Soleil. It's only going to be in town for a short while, too. A handful of the shareware developers will see their acts hit the big time, but most will flop and quickly be forgotten. I, for one, don't want to miss out on a peek under the tent before the circus moves out of town.

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

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