Mac OS X Diary: The Final Frontier

Just for kicks, I decided to install Mac OS X on my grandmother's iMac this past week.

Yes, you read that sentence correctly. And yes, I'm the guy who threw up his hands a couple of weeks ago when my partner -- a man with a bachelor's of science degree who's written a Unix-based OS -- had trouble installing OS X on a 233MHz iMac. I'm also the person who wondered what kind of problems a new computer user such as my 73-year-old grandmother would face with OS X if the next-generation operating system was causing these kind of headaches for my partner and me.

Still, I installed it on her iMac -- and not because I've magically transformed into the world's cruelest grandson. Instead, the more I think about it, the more I believe OS X may be an ideal operating system for new computer users.

The look and feel of the old Mac OS is familiar, if not ingrained, in most of us longtime Mac users. But imagine you haven't had the past 17 years to familiarize yourself with the Mac OS. Try to forget everything you've picked up over the past decade of using a Mac -- then you'll find yourself in the shoes of new Mac users like my grandmother. To them, the old Mac OS isn't as easy as the rest of us would like to think. Icons may be too small to decipher. Menus that change with every application cause confusion. And we won't even mention the occasional system crashes.

So, for my grandmother Nan, OS X it is. It's pretty, and for everything she needs to do, it should be just right.

For starters, the larger, more understandable icons make more sense to a new user. It was easy to show Nan how to send e-mail by telling her, "Click on the postage stamp," and then watch the mail icon bounce. At least that way, you know when you do something right. And what could make more sense to a new computer user than an e-mail icon represented by a pencil and a pad of paper? There's no explanation needed -- anyone can figure out that the icon has something to do with composing a letter.

OS X's ease of use doesn't end with pretty icons. Indeed, the green, yellow, and red buttons allowed me to finally explain to Nan how to close and minimize windows. And why not? Anyone with a driver's license should be able to recognize the colors of a stoplight and figure out what clicking on a red button will do to your window.

And for all the gripes I've heard over the last six months about the loss of the Apple menu, and then its anemic return, has anyone thought about how much easier the menu is to use -- especially for newcomers? There's no need to offer some Byzantine explanation along the lines of, "Well, first you have to quit, then you have to go to the Special menu. If you can't see the Special menu, you have to go to the Application menu and pick the Finder. . . ." By the time I manage to spit that out, Nan has usually stopped listening and has moved on to asking me what I'd like for dinner the next time I visit. For me, it's much easier to say, "When you're all done, click on the blue Apple, and select Shutdown."

So far, the Nan-on-OS-X experiment is off to a good start. I've even set up the machine to autolog in, so she doesn't have to remember a username and password. The result? A happy Mac user, again.

Serving Up a Quandry

More advanced users might be aware that Apple announced a new version of Mac OS X Server a few weeks ago. Built on top of the OS X foundation, the server integrates Apache Web server, Samba for Windows file sharing, WebObjects 5 application server, and QuickTime Streaming Server 3. You also get protected memory, preemptive multitasking, symmetric multiprocessing, advanced memory management, and the latest networking and security standards.

What you don't get is a comprehensive backup solution for OS X Server. Dantz currently offers a beta version of its popular Retrospect client software for backing up desktop and notebook computers. But that beta doesn't support OS X Server. If you want to run OS X Server as your server, you will have to run the Retrospect client software on that server, while backing up to another server -- at least until Dantz announces support for OS X Server.

It seems odd that Apple chose to ship a server -- a place where people store large amounts of important data -- without a backup solution in place. With its powerful tools, OS X Server figures to be a very popular product -- at least until someone loses everything.

Hard Drive Dilemma

One last OS X hardware note -- I recently invested in another hard drive. They're so inexpensive these days, who can resist adding more? I figured I would keep my applications on one hard drive, and my system and other files on the other in hopes that it might speed up my Mac's performance.

It didn't.

OS 9.1 didn't seem to mind that my applications were located elsewhere. OS X did. I'm not sure why, but when all my OS X applications were located on another drive and I placed an alias to that drive named "Applications" at the top level of my system, the apps located there tended to run and load a bit slower.

I threw out all those included applications with the OS X install after I copied them over to the new drive. After doing that, some things -- such as Print Center, the application that has replaced Chooser for selecting printers -- stopped working. Others took longer to load.

The solution? Since I'm big on cleanliness, I erased everything and started over, but not before backing up my important irreplaceable data, of course. The lesson here: Do as they say, not as I do.

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