X is its name, if you count in Roman numerals. To most Mac users, it's the tenth edition of the Macintosh operating system--the software that's been at the heart of the Mac since 1984. But the very name of Mac OS X doesn't do justice to the enormous shift this new operating system means for Apple and for the community of Mac users.
In reality, Mac OS X isn't the tenth Mac OS. It's really Macintosh 2.0--a completely new construction that, while familiar in form and function, is about as closely related to the Mac OS you know and love as you are to a ring-tailed lemur.
Several years ago, Apple executives realized that the Mac OS was in danger of collapsing under its own weight. For all the elegance we see on the surface of the Mac OS, underneath it's a construct that has been built layer upon layer over more than a decade by thousands of different programmers who have passed through Apple. It's a state-of-the-art computer operating system--for 1984. Apple's brain trust knew that for the Mac to remain a legitimate alternative to Windows, the company would need to create a radical make-over of its system software.
You already know the next part of the story: for years Apple stumbled from one plan to another, always promising a renovated Mac OS but never delivering. But now, Mac users are nearing the edge of that oft-promised land. Just around the bend is Mac OS X--the culmination of five years of tumult within the Mac community, the new operating system that will make the Mac second to none, a modern operating system that promises to be fast, stable, and generally wonderful.
Hang on. It's going to be a bumpy ride.
The reason the Mac OS X project has been delayed repeatedly is also the same reason why, when it arrives, it's going to be a tough transition for Mac users: Apple has essentially had to create a new operating system that looks and acts like its old one, more or less. And because they're building from scratch and not just updating the old stuff, Mac OS X is undoubtedly going to have more quirks, bugs, incompatibilities, and new behaviors than any previous update to the old Mac OS.
Being a savvy Mac user means understanding all the Mac's little idiosyncracies, knowing how to find just the right file in the Extensions folder or where to hold down the Option key and double-click in order to get to a secret feature, having a tool chest of little techniques that help you fix a Mac that's not working quite right. Most, if not all, of that savvy will not apply to Mac OS X. It will be a new learning experience for everyone.
The Apple menu? Gone in OS X, replaced by the Application menu. Control Panels? All gone, replaced with a new two-paned preference panel that's actually reminiscent of the pre-System 7 Control Panel. The Finder has been redesigned, with new behaviors like a side-scrolling column view and a Web-browser-style button bar. Don't look in the upper right corner for a list of running programs; instead you'll need to master the strange new Dock located in the middle of the bottom edge of your screen.
There's been a lot of talk about Aqua, the new look for the Mac interface that's coming in OS X. Aqua's all about replacing black lines and sharp edges with shades of gray; every window casts a shadow, every button has a crystalline sheen to it. Default buttons throb in blue, a behavior that enterprising shareware authors are probably even now trying to eradicate.
In general, Aqua doesn't look that much different than the current Mac OS. But seeing a demo of Aqua and using it yourself are two quite different things. Savvy Mac users forget just how much of the Mac's rule book they've internalized--but one attempt to click on the button on the right corner of an Aqua window's title bar will remind you. Instead of minimizing the window (or setting off the current Mac OS's windowshade effect), clicking on that far-right button now puts you in "single-window mode," hiding all the windows except the one you're currently using. In other words, the exact opposite of the effect you wanted to have. And that's just one example; every corner of the new interface will prompt you to modify your ingrained Mac skills in other ways.
It's a trade-off. In return for sacrificing familiarity, Mac users who choose to adopt Mac OS X will gain a slew of new features they don't currently have. Programs that crash shouldn't ever take down the entire Mac or even any other running programs, thanks to protected memory technology. That protected memory also means that you can run programs without getting the infamous warning that "there is not enough memory" to start an application.
OS X's pre-emptive multitasking means that the program you're currently using won't be slowed to a crawl by other programs running on your Mac; it also means that programs that aren't frontmost will still run at decent speeds.
However, all these features only apply to programs that run natively in OS X--meaning, for the most part, that the programs you're using today will need to be updated before they'll take advantage of the new features. Some programs will no doubt appear as native OS X applications at the same time OS X does; others will probably lag far behind.
However, Apple has taken great pains to make sure that the move to Mac OS X won't make your current Mac programs useless. That's because one of the programs built into Mac OS X is called Classic, a native Mac OS X application that runs all your old Mac OS 8 and 9 programs. Basically, programs running inside Classic think they're in Mac OS 9--but they appear on your OS X screen just as they do today.
But to repeat: these programs don't take advantage of any of OS X's features. If one of them crashes, they all can crash. They don't get the Aqua interface, but instead look like regular ol' OS 9 programs. And fundamentally, they're all running in a phony Mac OS 9 environment--who knows what strange incompatibilities that Apple hasn't foreseen might crop up? Undoubtedly there will be some infamous cases of some programs simply not working right on Mac OS X.
Over the next year, the coming of OS X will also cause a huge schism in the Mac world, as Mac loyalists break into two distinct groups: those who have jumped on the OS X bandwagon and those who keep running OS 8 and 9. Some will avoid making the switch due to incompatibility problems, either actual or feared; others won't be able to jump at all, because Apple says Mac OS X will only run on Macs which came from the factory with G3 or G4 chips inside.
That split will mean that all of us will have to be very clear about which Mac OS we're running; if you're buying new software, you'll need to find out if the "Mac software" you're buying will run on OS 9 (many Mac OS X programs will) and if it runs natively on OS X or only in Classic mode. Directions on how to perform many common tasks will differ based on which version you're running.
Finally, there's a massive new wrinkle that's been put into the Mac interface, one which Apple says you'll never need to see--but one which will appeal to many of the geekier Mac users. Mac OS X is based on the Unix operating system, which can be controlled via a DOS-like command-line interface--in order to move into and list the contents of a folder called Files, you type "cd Files", hit return, type "ls" and hit return again. Mac OS X has this interface, too, although it's hidden away where you can only get to it if you want to.
Hard-core Mac tweakers will undoubtedly do just that. And even intermediate Mac users may be tempted to peer behind the veil, and take advantage of some of the power that lives in the unfriendly, un-Mac-like world of the command line.
In the end, Mac OS X may be a remarkable success, both in terms of Apple's Herculean programming efforts and in terms of the ultimate benefit to Mac users. But that's a judgment that can't truly be made for at least another year. Will OS X live up to its regal roman numerals? Over the next 12 months, the Mac world will provide the answer.