Mac OS X: Apple Surprises, Apple Delays

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SAN JOSE--Only Apple's iCEO, the master showman Steve Jobs, could announce yet another delay for the company's long-awaited Mac OS X operating system and receive loud applause from the large throng of Mac developers.

Now It's a Public Beta

At Monday's opening keynote of Apple's annual Worldwide Developers Conference -- referred to by the president of Oracle as a "Jobs revival meeting" -- the charismatic Apple leader revealed what many Mac followers have suspected for some time: Mac OS X will not be shipping this summer as Apple had claimed in January at Macworld Expo.

Of course, Jobs is the master of spin. He made noises about how Apple was essentially doing what it had already promised, but just saying it differently. As if. In January, Jobs said Apple would ship Mac OS X this summer -- but now there will only be a public beta this summer, not a finished product. In January, Apple also said that as of January 2001, Mac OS X would be shipping on all new Apple systems. Monday Jobs carefully slid in that OS X would be "available for pre-install" in January, that there would be "pre-loading options." So goes the spin.

This is nothing new -- and that's why it wasn't really unexpected. Apple has pushed back Mac OS X repeatedly; last year, Mac OS X was supposed to be arriving in January 2000. Instead, in January 2000 Jobs "announced" a product it had already announced months before and gave it a new, later estimated time of arrival -- yet another delay announced to the sounds of cheers.

While it's fun to note Apple's product delays -- and Jobs' deftness at sliding them right under the radar -- it's only fair to point out that Apple's engineers are clearly burning the candle at both ends. Just a few years ago, after the disaster of the Copland project (the original Mac OS 8, which was supposed to offer many of OS X's features), pundits declared that an undertaking like OS X could never reasonably be achieved. If Apple wanted to reinvent the Mac, it would have to toss compatibility to the wind and create a completely new Mac OS.

But Jobs and company knew that for the new Mac OS to really take off, compatibility with old Mac applications would have to be part of the package. And they appear to have pulled it off. Current Mac applications run inside Mac OS X without any apparent hiccups, their windows share space with Mac OS X native applications, and you can even drag-and-drop data back and forth between "classic" Mac programs and the new stuff. That's remarkable, when you think about it. A few delays are probably forgivable.

Apple Listens

This isn't to say that the second Jobs Address of 2000 wasn't without its surprises. No, there was no PowerBook G4, iMac with a 17-inch LCD panel screen, or Power Mac with processors so fast that flames shoot out the side door when you open it. Here's the real surprise: Apple admitted that it's taken some lumps about the new Aqua interface, and that it's taking steps to address the Mac community's concerns.

Now, you're saying to yourself, what's so surprising about a company listening to constructive feedback about its products? Nothing. Except that this is Apple, and Apple's attitude has often been that it knows better than any silly Mac users. At the 1999 WWDC, Jobs' presentation was essentially a dismantling of the Mac OS Finder (in many ways the most important part of the Mac interface). Back then, Jobs essentially said that Mac OS X was going to replace the Finder with a NeXT-style file browser, one with side-scrolling columns instead of traditional Icon and List views. Anger and panic among developers and general Mac users ensued.

Then in January, Jobs was slightly repentant. The new attitude: you can still do the stuff you do on the Mac today, but why would you ever want to do something that lame when you can use our new interface instead?

But look where we are today. If you want to have a Mac OS X Finder window without a Web-browser-style toolbar at the top of the window, you can. If you want to view everything in Icon and List views, you can. If you want to have new windows open when you double-click on a folder, you can do that, too. You can even place files on the desktop.

It's a subtle shift, but a good one to see: Apple's not trying to graft Mac OS 9 on top of Mac OS X, but neither are they throwing away 15 years of learned behavior by all its loyal users. Apple's engineers and designers are trying to innovate in as many places as possible, but they no longer appear to be tearing down the classic old buildings in order to make way for the new, shiny structures. Both styles of architecture are living side by side.

The Importance of X

For the past two years, we've all been spoiled. Almost every major Mac event has involved the unveiling of a new impressive piece of hardware. That was a great time, mostly because Apple had been so moribund that a complete renovation of its product line was in order. And so we got to see the iMac, the G3 and G4 Power Macs, and the iBook hit the scene.

But now Apple's hardware is pretty well set. Sure, there might be tweaks here and there -- I'm still waiting for a Power Mac G4 with more than one processor inside the box, and it's unlikely that Apple will go too long without giving the iMac another makeover.

We've entered a different era of the second Jobs reign -- this is the era of Mac OS X. Jobs said it himself on Monday: "[Mac OS X is] clearly the most important thing we're doing at Apple."

And -- Apple spin doctoring notwithstanding -- it's clearly the most important thing going on in the Macintosh world today.

Macworld.com Editor JASON SNELL has been covering the Mac OS for more than six years.

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