I sat down at my Macintosh at home to do some photo editing when I realized the pictures I wanted were on a Windows computer. Although the two machines are just a few feet from each other, moving the files from one to the other would, until recently, have required me to copy the pictures to some sort of removable storage unit, probably a recordable CD. Then plunk that into the Mac.
Instead, I clicked on a menu item called "connect to server." Then I chose my home network from a list, selected the Windows PC, and logged in with my Windows user name and password. In a few seconds, an icon representing the PC hard drive popped up on the screen and I could use the files as though they were on the Mac.
The secret to this success is Jaguar, the newest version of the Mac's OS X operating software. For years, Apple Computer (AAPL ) has regarded Windows as beneath its contempt. That attitude did not waver as Microsoft (MSFT ) grabbed 95% or more of the desktop software market, and information-technology managers used the difficulty of integrating Macs into Windows-dominated offices to drive most Apple products out of corporations.
Apple has leapt forward by taking two steps back. First, it has tacitly conceded that we live in a Windows world and has taken major steps to make Macs work and play better with the dominant operating system. Second, it has returned to its roots of making networking easy.
Apple invented simple networking in the late 1980s when it came up with AppleTalk, which let you cable Macs and printers together. Fetching a file from another Mac or sending a document to a printer was a simple point-and-click proposition. The problem was that AppleTalk had trouble with the complex, multisite networks that became standard in business and higher education. Apple coped by layering on additional networking capabilities, but at the price of much complexity. OS X is based on the Unix operating system, and the original version, released last year, combined the power of Unix networking with much of its user-unfriendliness.
Jaguar heads back toward Apple's original simplicity. It shows all the networks and computers it sees, including Windows workgroups or domains and Macs, in a window that is a lot easier to understand and use than Windows' My Network Places. It's not perfect, though. For example, when Jaguar fails to establish a network connection, which can happen for many reasons, it offers error messages as incomprehensible as anything in Windows. But the ability to connect to Windows servers and workstations with such ease is a breakthrough. It may not make IT managers love Macs, but it makes it a lot easier for Mac fans to argue for them.
Apple also gave Jaguar built-in support for virtual private networks that use Microsoft's Point to Point Tunneling Protocol. This makes it possible for mobile executives to access behind-the-firewall corporate mail servers or other network resources using any Internet connection, be it a dial-up call from a hotel room or a wireless link at a coffeehouse. Jaguar also offers improved performance, especially for launching and running programs written for older Mac operating systems.
A new technology, called Rendezvous, is supposed to make it much easier to find and use network resources, such as printers. However, few Rendezvous-equipped products are now available. And Apple has released so little technical information that it is hard to figure out how Rendezvous compares with Microsoft's Universal Plug and Play or Sun Microsystems' Jini Technologies, which offer similar services.
I upgraded Macs to Jaguar both from OS 9.1 and older versions of OS X and found it a painless experience, much less scary than most Windows upgrades. Jaguar costs $129 for a single copy--there's no discount for upgrades from earlier OS X versions--or $199 for a family pack usable on up to five machines. An upgrade to Windows XP Home Edition costs $100 per computer.
For the past year, Mac OS X has been a work in progress. Jaguar is the real thing, especially now that many key Mac applications, including most programs from Microsoft, Adobe Systems (ADBE ), and Macromedia (MACR ), come in versions designed for OS X. With enhanced Windows compatibility as a bonus, a move to Jaguar is a clear winner.