Mac OS X Primer

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Today is the day. The next generation operating system for the Mac platform and, as the cliche goes, the future has arrived. A new path is set for our favorite computing platform and we're off to a brave new world.

To help set the path, we're offering a "primer" for Mac OS X. If you've been following coverage of the operating system and know its fundamentals, you can skip this because there's probably nothing you haven't read or seen before. However, if you're unfamiliar with OS X or are a newcomer to the Mac, read on for an overview of what's in store.

No, scratch that. Not in store, but in stores -- today.

Mac OS X includes components of the traditional Mac OS, as well as OpenStep technologies that Apple obtained in the purchase of the NeXT company. In other words, Apple has worked to meld the best parts of the traditional Mac operating system with UNIX underpinnings and top it off with an eye-popping, friendly graphical user interface.

To facilitate the transition to a whole new operating system (cause that's really what it is), Apple will support three critical applications environments: Classic, Carbon, and Cocoa.

Classic lets you run all your existing Macintosh applications "as-is." Your old apps will run like they do on Mac OS 9, bit won't take advantage of Mac OS X's state-of-the-art plumbing and the Aqua interface components.

Carbon applications, on the other hand, are optimized to run on Mac OS X. They'll get the use of the modern carbon applications programming interface, all the features of the Darwin core OS (like protected memory for crash-resistant computing and pre-emptive multitasking for a more responsive system).

Cocoa is an advanced object-oriented programming environment. According to Apple, Cocoa gives developers a whole new toolbox for building the best next-generation applications.


With Mac OS X, Apple has two design goals for the new user interface: 1) create an operating system that's appealing to look at, and 2) make it a pleasure to use. Enter the interface known as "Aqua."

Why Aqua (which means water in many languages, because the operating system flows)? Because the operating system is fluid. Filled with such eye candy as pulsating buttons and windows that flow rather than snap to attention, Aqua is designed to look so good you'll want to lick it, as Apple CEO Steve Jobs has said.

Aqua windows sport gel-like, proportional scroll thumbs, colored jellybeans (or perhaps they're gems) for title-bar widgets, and bright "traffic light" buttons. Yes, the traffic light analogy is deliberate. A red button stops (closes) a window. A green button tells it to go (zoom). And a yellow button slows (shrinks or minimizes) a window.

Transparency is also used extensively in the Aqua environment. Traffic widgets and windows cast transparent shadows on windows behind them. If you unselect pull-down menus, they fade away rather than immediately disappearing.

Apple obviously wants to appeal to those who love the eye-popping designs of the iMac, iBook, as well as the more "sophisticated" G3/G4 line. In fact, Apple itself says one of its goals for the Mac OS X graphical user interface is to make it "more appealing than any Mac you've ever seen" and which would "make what you get with other operating systems look like paleolithic tools."

One of the most noticeable differences is in the icons. For 15 years, computer OSes have used 32x32 pixel icons, which were designed for low-resolution displays.

But since display sizes and resolution levels have "dramatically increased," Apple says Aqua sheds these constraints with large -- up to 128 x 128 pixels -- richly-colored, photo-quality icons. The larger size makes the icons more attractive, more legible, offers a broader canvas for more photo-quality detail, and provides better document previews in the Finder, according to Apple. However, traditional size icons can still be used, if you prefer the Platinum OS appearance.

Also, Apple says Mac OS X has the option of reducing multiple window clutter common to operating systems by focusing most of its applications in a single window. The new Finder, Mail (OS X's system-level e-mail application), and the system preferences panel live together harmoniously in a single window.

The next generation operating system will also purportedly assist you in managing your screen space. How? By improving screen space management with a new feature called Single Window Mode. When you're in Single Window Mode your Mac makes the current window the active window and automatically hides all the other open windows. When you want to work on another document or application, your Mac automatically removes the currently active document and makes the desired document the only active document on the screen. However, many long time users of the Mac find Single Window Mode a less efficient way to work so it can be disabled to let you pack multiple windows on your desktop.

What's more, Mac OS X introduces new panels that attach themselves to documents and "make their relationship clear," according to Apple. You can even have multiple interleaved documents, each with its own print or save panel open simultaneously. Interestingly, you can leave dialog panels open (instead of demanding immediate condition, as the Mac OS currently does) and go to other chores.

The new panels slide out from a window's title, and have a translucent quality that makes them appear as if they're floating above the document. And the Open dialog boxes of Mac OS X will display a multi-paned directory tree. Though this feature wasn't shown during the Macworld Expo demo, sources say this will be consistent with the file viewer interface shown in one of the optional Finder views.

Despite the changes Apple says the core locations and behaviors of things like windows, scroll bars, and icons remain "largely unchanged and comfortable" to Mac users.

The Apple Menu is still around (well, sorta) and on the left hand side of the screen, as always. It has been overhauled, however.

"When people think of the Mac OS, they think of the Finder as the place where you go to do everything," Jobs said. "Everything has been done through the Finder. But we see the Finder as just another app. There may be multiple Finders some day. Some new users may never need to use the Finder. So we've redesigned the Apple Menu with this in Find."

You can now go to Apple Menu to accomplish tasks such as Sleep, Restart, and Shutdown that you now have to go to the Finder to handle. The Location Finder is back and accessible through the OS X Apple Menu. You can also log-out, force quit, and access preferences for the System and Dock from the menu.

The Dock

One of the most controversial features of Mac OS X is the Dock, a "box" that sits at the bottom of your screen. The Dock holds folders, applications, documents, storage devices, minimized windows, QuickTime movies, digital images, URLs, and other stuff you want instant access to.

Apple says the Dock exemplifies the principal of "a place for everything and everything in its place." It displays an icon for each item you store there. Besides looking spiffy, Apple says the icons will provide useful feedback about the applications and documents they represent. For example, the icon for Mail tells you if you have any new messages waiting to be read. If you store an image, the Dock shows it in preview mode, so you can tell what it is without opening it. And because you can "minimize" running applications into the Dock, a quick look at the bottom of the screen tells you what applications you're currently running.

There's a small bar in the Dock window that separates applications (they're on the left of the bar and documents are on the right). You can drag items out of the Dock to the desktop to remove them. Once you do, they disappear in a "poof" of onscreen smoke. You can also now drag URLs into the Dock and access the Web sites from it.

In a Launcher-like feature, switching between tasks involves just clicking the application or document icon you want to start using, and it becomes the new active task. You can choose to "minimize" an open window and have it become an icon in the Dock. Click a docked icon and it "maximizes" if it's a window or opens if it's an application or document.

As you continue to add items to the Dock, it expands until it reaches the edge of your screen. Once it hits the border, the Dock icons (which are dynamically scalable) shrink proportionately to accommodate additional items. To make the smaller icons more legible, Apple has included a new feature called magnification. Pass your mouse over the icons, and they magnify to a maximum resolution that you can preset, up to 128x128.

If you move your mouse over an icon in the Dock, its name "floats" above into view. In fact, the Quartz graphics engine provides an eye-popping "genie" effect in which windows "flow" to and from the Dock if minimized or maximized. Both minimum, normal, rollover and maximum icon sizes will be adjustable.

The Finder

Mac OS X will have a Finder, but it's a new Finder which will, in Apple's words, give you "fast, easy access to the things you do most with your computer--finding files, running applications, and communicating with people." The first thing that will jump out at you about the new Finder is its navigation interface, as well as the fact that it's totally contained within a single window.

You jump to the most used sections of your Mac via large buttons. For instance, if you click on the Home button you're transported to your Home directory. This directory can be located on your hard disk drive or on a network (the File Viewer knows the location of said directory). The aforementioned buttons offer quick access to applications, documents, favorites, and--new with Mac OS X--the people with whom you often communicate.

Apple says the new Finder is better than the traditional one since files and nestled folders multiple like rabbits, it ends up being difficult tracking where you are and where you want to go (as opposed to "where do you want to go today?") in the classic Mac operating system.

Still, Mac OS X now also lets you "spawn" windows in the method of the classic Finder if you like. "Most people loved the new Finder, but some missed the old Finder," Jobs said. "Now you can make litter the screen with lots of windows if you want."

Sporting the Aqua interface style, the OS X Finder's icons are continuously scalable, just like icons in the Dock. And the Finder browser has a "back" button and an integrated Search field, two new goodies.

The Finder of Mac OS X has a File Viewer that offers three different options for viewing your file system. Apple has retained the traditional icon and list views from Mac OS 9, while, in their words, improving their behavior to reduce screen clutter and provide better navigation feedback. Now double-clicking on items in the icon or list views no longer brings up separate windows. Instead, the view on the new folder replaces the old folder view within the single File Viewer window. Apple says that by focusing the file system into a single window view, Mac OS X makes smarter use of screen space and eliminates the problem of proliferating windows.

Besides these two views, Apple has added a new column view designed to make it easier to navigate deep file systems and see what's in them at a glance. It uses columns to list the contents of each folder. Single clicking on a folder creates a new column view to the right of the previous folder view containing the contents of the new folder. Each additional folder spawns a new column to the right of the previously current folder. Apple says this makes it easy to move through deep file systems or networks and provides an easy location reference point. The column view maintains a history of your navigational forays in short-term memory, so you can always find your way back.

Apple says the File Viewer not only provides a view into your hard disk, it's now the only interface you need to access all resources connected to your compute--everything from externally connected storage devices like FireWire and USB hard drives, to CD-ROMs, digital cameras even the Internet. The company has also made the network an extension of the file system by incorporating it into the File Viewer. By including the network into the file viewer, connecting to AppleShare volumes or other Network File Systems is as simple and as easy to navigate as your local drive, claims Apple.

But there are still several very traditional features maintained. Disks can be dragged onto the desktop. Application names now appear in menus so you can see what application you're running.

OS X's toolbars are customizable through a range of options. You can add a status bar if you prefer to show things like the number of items, available space on a disk, etc. And, of course, you can hide the toolbar if you prefer.

Popup menus are still around, in a way. You can now click and hold down items on the Dock and get popup menus. Plus, you can drag and drop items from several folders deep in these product menus.


With Mac OS X, Apple is combining the Quartz, QuickTime, and OpenGL graphics technologies in order to, in the company's humble words, "take the Mac's graphics capabilities beyond anything you've ever seen on a desktop operating system."

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