OS X: Judgement Day

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There's an old saying in the computer biz. Once you put aside specifics of religious doctrine and legal status, the real difference between Apple and Microsoft is that Apple thinks the job is done when a product ships, and Microsoft thinks the job is just starting.

Never has this been truer than with this weekend's arrival of Mac OS X. Apple has put a tremendous amount of effort into its first completely new operating system in 17 years, and it shows. Mac OS X is nothing short of an engineering masterpiece, with powerful foundation technologies and an interface that's both elegant and whimsical.

Apple has succeeded where everyone else has failed. They have delivered a state-of-the-art operating system -- perhaps even beyond state-of-the-art -- that anyone can use. It addresses all the outstanding problems of the original Mac OS while pushing the envelope in form and function. With apologies to Arthur C. Clarke, Mac OS X is technology so powerful it is indistinguishable from magic.

Now the only question is, will anybody use it?

The Sorcerer's Apprentice

Mac OS X is magic, in the sense that it's a spell about to be cast. It's clear that Mac OS X is not yet a finished product. There's just too much missing. You can't burn CDs, you can't play DVD movies, and a lot of add-on devices won't work or won't really work well. Printing from Classic over a network, for example, is spotty at best.

Aside from these considerable limitations, there is almost no commercial Mac OS X-native software. The applications I use to get work done -- Photoshop, ImageReady, Dreamweaver, Microsoft Word and Outlook Express, and Palm Desktop -- only work in the Classic environment. With the exception of Microsoft Internet Explorer, this is the software I depend on and where I spend the vast majority of my time. If I can run these only in Classic mode, what is the point of running Mac OS X?

A lot of users will be asking this question as they consider whether to buy Mac OS X. The answer is, because Mac OS X is the future of the Mac and because more and more stuff will work with it as the months go by. And if you adopt it now, you may help speed up the development and improvement of Mac OS X.

In this respect, Apple had better be thinking more like Microsoft. It's clear that with this release of Mac OS, Apple's job is just beginning.

My Own Private Idaho

To Apple's credit, it's positioning this first release of OS X as one for "early adopters" -- users with high technical savvy and low expectations.

Which comes around to me. Am I going to install Mac OS X on my PowerBook? I can't really believe I'm saying this, but the answer is yes.

There are three reasons I will be among the first adopters: First and most obvious, it's my job. If anyone should be trying to use the future of Macintosh computing, it should be Macworld 's editor in chief. I feel I have an ethical obligation to be a guinea pig. Sure, I may end up entering a Zen-like state of perfect misery . . . but if there's a chance that my experiences will save readers a little pain, again, it's my job.

Second, as many of you already know, I'm a hard-core portable user. I do everything on a PowerBook or a Palm device, except for the occasional game of Oni. And Mac OS X looks to be pretty sweet for PowerBook users, even in its still-rough-around-the-edges state.

Once PowerBook users see a machine running Mac OS X wake up from sleep, they'll be hooked. It's so fast, you can't measure it on a stopwatch.

And, Mac OS X features a new Location Manager that seems to work the way it should have all along. It has an Automatic setting, which will select a network profile in descending order of performance. So if you have an Ethernet location and there's an Ethernet connection available, that's what it'll use. If there's only an AirPort network and you have access privileges, it'll opt for that. No fuss, no muss, no user intervention necessary.

Finally, Apple has conveniently left me with a parachute. One quick trip to System Preferences, and I can reboot back into Mac OS 9.1.

Of course, I think once I get started using Mac OS X, going back to OS 9.1 will seem like devolving my Macintosh a dozen years. Once I get myself settled in with the Homo sapiens of operating systems, I'm not going to want to monkey around with anything else.

ANDY GORE is Macworld 's editor in chief. Discuss this column in the Vision Thing forum.

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