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Transition Anxiety

I'm no theologian, but I believe that there must be a special level of hell reserved for Apple executives who think the only thing the Next operating system needed to succeed was a larger group of people forced to use it. So far, the Mac market seems to agree: Mac OS X's adoption rate is far below what it should be, and while there's plenty of blame to pass around, Apple deserves a large share.


The numbers tell a sordid tale. OS X 10.0 debuted on March 24, 2001, and by January 2003 had five million users. That seems quite good -- until you realize that Windows XP reached a fifth of all worldwide Internet users in a little more than 11 months. OS X took twice as long to reach that percentage of Mac users -- five million people -- and that's after Apple included it free with about five million machines sold since May 2001. Oops.

Apple has responded to these lackluster results by counting the number of people currently using OS X, redefining that number as the amount required for a successful transition, and declaring victory. Try defining your income tax bill as "the amount I already paid," and see how much sympathy you get from the IRS.

This is the transition Steve Jobs has pronounced "basically over." If he truly believed that, he should have followed up his statement by weeping uncontrollably.

Why Don't They Upgrade?

OS X users typically don't understand why so many OS 9 users resist the new operating system. After all, OS X is a kick-ass operating system: it rarely forces users to reboot; it supports multiple processors as well as any operating system on the planet; and its Unix-based preemptive multitasking means that it doesn't bog down if you're downloading the bimonthly OS update, ripping CDs in iTunes, filtering the wrinkles out of your self-portraits in Photoshop, and updating your Weblog -- all at the same time. Anyone who's lost the use of an OS 9 machine for a few hours while it works on a single task would never look back after switching to OS X.

Some more-controversial changes to the OS are completely justified, too. Apple was right to adopt Aqua, the first new look since 1995 ushered in the Platinum Age. And after last year, when two of my family members separately and accidentally threw away their entire OS 9 System Folders without realizing it, I've become a big fan of permissions even for average users. You should have to know what you're doing to delete certain files. That's software evolution.

So why hasn't OS X conquered the world?

The Holdouts

Apple's official line is that a slow technology economy has discouraged people from buying expensive Power Macs, and that those who can afford the new boxes aren't willing to spend the money and switch to OS X unless all the programs they want are available natively. It's the I'll-switch-when-I-upgrade-but-I'm-not-upgrading-until-everything's-in-place-for-me-to-switch paradox.

But I don't buy the theory that most of the remaining OS 9 users have just been waiting for QuarkXPress. After all, before laying the blame on XPress, Apple first said they were waiting for Microsoft Office and then pointed the finger at Adobe Photoshop.

Once you account for Quark anticipation, and after you dismiss the cranky people who'll never switch for irrational reasons such as the lack of a rainbow-colored Apple menu, you're left with people who are capable of running OS X, and probably even own a copy, but choose not to use it. Apple desperately wants us to believe that this group is small, but the numbers say otherwise.

The problem for these holdouts is that OS X is full of disruptive changes that don't provide any benefits. Graphics professionals, for example, are used to working in one program that has to work as fast as possible. Preemptive multitasking actually makes most programs, though more responsive, a little slower.

Pop-up Finder windows, the old Application menu, the customizable Apple menu, and plenty more features went away for no particular reason. In return, we got the Dock, the static Apple menu, a View As Columns option in the Finder, an enforced disk hierarchy, and "prebinding."

And that's just on the surface. The originally demonstrated OS X Finder had only the Columns view, just like the Next Browser. Apple's Next-oriented management team thought it could replace AppleScript with a scripting language of its own until several large publishing customers took them to school. As late as the alpha stage, OS X had no Apple menu of any kind, no monochrome interface options, and a completely inflexible Dock without hierarchical folder displays.

Those features were left out because the Next folks didn't like the Macintosh way. Instead, they followed their arrogant philosophy: despite massive marketplace rejection, the Next operating system was really the superior product and would have dominated if only more people had seen it in action. What better way to prove this than forcing Mac owners to use that operating system? After all, if users had the freedom to choose an icon view or pop-up windows or a configurable Apple menu, they wouldn't see the genius of the Columns view, minimized windows, or the Dock.

In other cases, where the Macintosh way is obviously superior (for example, HFS Plus disks full of metadata about both the

Boondoggles invented at Next, such as prebinding updates to make up for an inherently slow binary file format, are revered in OS X. Features invented at Apple before 1996 are scorned, not because of quality but because of provenance.

Is Apple Listening?

Despite oodles of complaints over the past three years, Apple still ignores requests to drop the attitude and make OS X more like the Mac. In response, people who are very productive in OS 9 are ignoring OS X -- and that means they're not buying new software or new Macs, which is a problem for a company that's flirted with red ink for the past several quarters.

Apple will soon show the next major version of OS X, named Panther, and if it wants to accelerate the OS X transition to an appropriate rate, it will abandon the Next elitism. There is no technical reason OS X can't restore any of the disfavored features. They're not present now because Apple management doesn't want you to have options that threaten Next's place in history.

But a forced choice is no endorsement. Millions more people could benefit from OS X if Apple would focus on serving them. But if the transition to OS X is really complete, politics has triumphed over productivity -- and all Mac users have lost.

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