OS X Beta Diary: End of the Line

In keeping with the spirit of OS X, there are a few bugs left in this, my final Beta Diary. Sure, my column has gone off to production with a few minor mistakes, maybe even a missing paragraph or two. But deadlines are deadlines, whether they're for online diaries or for highly anticipated next-generation operating systems.

Of course, I kid Apple.

Rumor has it that when OS X hits the shelves March 24, the new operating system will be missing a few features. But if I've learned one thing through the years, it's that you should never believe rumors about what Apple will do -- especially since Jobs's return and especially when it comes to OS X.

I'm certain that Apple will push OS X out the door with the operating system missing some very important components. But don't think Apple considers the product that goes out on March 24 finished. The development team will continue to work on OS X. And sooner or later, we'll have everything we'll need.

Before anyone gets upset about OS X missing a few parts, we need to consider two things. First, it's a 1.0 release. Think back to the first Mac OS -- you got MacWrite, MacPaint, and a calculator. Over the next year, more software arrived. Mac OS 9 represents 15 years of features and improvements. Comparing that to OS X is almost like comparing the finished version of an Oscar-nominated movie to the daily rushes.

Second, what we are getting is a pretty amazing feat. We have a backward-compatible layer for most of our current applications, a new user interface, and a host of applications that come with the 1.0 release.

But Apple doesn't get off the hook that easily. OS X: The Shipping Version will be missing stuff. And if you're planning on making the switch the new OS, you should know what.

OS X will lack strong driver support. Basically, unless Apple has written an application that can talk to your hardware, you're out of luck until someone else does. External FireWire and USB hard drives will work OK, as will most USB-attached digital cameras. (The OS X beta includes a fancy little application that does a great job importing images.) But CD-RW drives most likely won't work right away; the jury is still out on the built-in CD-RW drives that shipped with the latest G4s and iMacs. It's also safe to assume that scanners and Palm OS-based handhelds won't run natively in OS X, although chances are they'll work just fine from inside Classic -- the OS 9 compatibility environment in OS X.

Printing should work fine; you should be able to plug in your USB printer without having to load drivers. As for USB Printer Sharing -- a feature I currently use at home -- I haven't seen anything that indicates it will exist in the first OS X release.

Apple plans to ship OS X-native versions of iTunes and iMovie (though not iDVD), but it's unclear what else will be available as an OS X-native application. Steve Jobs says Apple expects a stream of OS X-ready software throughout the year, with the bulk coming during the summer. Hopefully, we'll get OS X versions of the programs we need, but these things take time.

Perhaps developers will decide to go public with beta versions of their software, and we'll get the chance to watch our applications develop -- much in the same way that we saw OS X take shape. But this is not a solution for the fainthearted; we can't count on it. Beta software can be unstable, and companies prefer to limit that kind of thing to people who fully understand that a beta is a work in progress.

"Wait a minute, Brett," you may be saying. "Why don't we have any software for OS X? Isn't the road to OS X paved with Carbon?" Well, it was supposed to be. But for that to happen, people would've had to rewrite their applications in Carbon -- the system developers use so their applications run on Mac OS 8.6, 9, and X; it's a sort of binary two-way street. The trouble is, Apple kept working on the OS. And, as I mentioned last time, it's hard to develop software when the OS you're developing it for keeps changing.

Apple could have avoided this developmental difficulty by lining up its ducks months ago and giving developers time to work out their own bugs. "So wasn't that what the public beta was for?" you might wonder. Not exactly. The public beta gave us a glimpse of the future of Mac OS and a chance to voice our concerns over the direction in which it was headed (while giving Apple a chance to change its plans based on that feedback). But the beta was never anything close to a finished product; developers couldn't Carbonize programs based on the beta because Apple was still tinkering with the OS.

Maybe that was a mistake. While there is a very real need for Apple to keep things under wraps -- Microsoft has already rolled out preview versions of Windows XP that are a close match, if not a total rip off, of OS X -- it might have been better for Apple, Mac developers, and even users if there were less secrecy surrounding the development of OS X. It's hard to be first when your competitor has more money and more developers. But the walls should have come down as OS X moved closer to completion, especially after the beta came out.

Then again, maybe that's why Apple bought Next, not vice versa.

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