Tis the season of new personal computer operating systems. Apple's Mac OS X (Version 1.0) hit the market last month, while a final beta of Microsoft's Windows XP recently made it to the PC faithful. Both operating systems – to be installed on all new Macs and PCs later this year – promise to make the personal computing experience easier and far more reliable.
(click thumbnail)We installed the new Mac OS X operating system on March 24, the day it was released to the public. Sleek, stylish and rich in graphics, OS X boasts a stunning new user interface with the tried-and-true stability of BSD 4.4 UNIX under the hood. OS X brings the Mac into the modern era with such features as true protected memory, pre-emptive multitasking and advanced memory management.
Yet, with this leap comes a steep learning curve, especially for those with extensive experience on the first-generation Mac OS. This, no doubt, is the reason that Apple released OS X to rabid Mac enthusiasts on a Saturday. If you were lucky, it took the weekend just to master the most rudimentary elements of what is essentially a brand-new Macintosh experience.
For this user, upgrading a PowerBook G3 (2000 series) went very smooth. In fact, the entire installation process was over in less than half an hour. Performance has been good. Best of all, OS X has yet to crash. Not once. Shaky OS X beta applications – released daily – fall like straws, but this tough new Mac platform is remarkable in its stability.
There are some missing pieces still to come. At this writing you can't burn a CD directly from OS X, nor can you play a DVD. Many drivers for printers and other peripherals are still to be released. And hundreds of applications – including most of those for video, audio and graphics professionals – remain to be upgraded (carbonized) for native use under the new OS.
If you can work around these obstacles, OS X is trustworthy and stable enough for real work today – at least that's been my experience so far. I'm writing this column on TextEdit, the excellent word processor included with OS X. I e-mailed it to TV Technology via a beta version of Qualcomm Eudora. So far, no gotchas.
The toughest part of adjusting to OS X is an arrogant practice that extends these days to the entire computer industry. That's the lack of clear and meaningful documentation – the kind written on paper. The slim booklet included with the software is almost worthless. Help menus are spare. Some topics are missing in action. And, of course, no self-help books were on the market when OS X was released.
This meant spending a lot of time on OS X chat boards, gleaning bits and pieces of information that led to those "ah-hah" moments that come when the incomprehensible suddenly makes sense. Good documentation is especially important in the early days of a transition to any new operating system. But Apple has set a new low for keeping early OS X users in the dark.
Though in my case OS X has performed pretty much without incident, I worry that Mac users like myself will lose something precious in this transition. That's the "do-it-yourself" ethos that has always been an important part of the Mac experience. Unlike the confounding Windows system, Macs have an inherent logic that allows even the most computer-illiterate to solve problems without the help of tech support personnel.
Just as with my trusty old pre-digital Volkswagen Beetle, I always liked the fact that I could successfully work on Macs myself or with the help of friends. There's a certain comfort knowing that you've amassed the skillset to keep something running most of the time. The usual suspect with the old Mac OS is the extensions folder. Find the errant extension and most times you solve your problem.
With UNIX, forget it. The underlying architecture of OS X is a geek paradise – a danger zone for the rest of us attracted to the user-friendly Mac in the first place. To keep us do-it-yourselfers locked out, Apple has devised a whole set of confusing permissions and authorizations to "protect" us from damaging critical OS X components.
That's just fine if the UNIX under OS X's hood is bulletproof and never needs maintenance. But what happens if it does? How does the Mac user (as opposed to the Mac technician) fix it? My worst fear in the OS X transition is that Mac users will become the same as Windows users, who long ago gave up trying to understand the arcane files that litter their system's underbelly. The dark side is not a place I want to go.
OS X is due to be installed on all new Macs beginning this summer. For most users, it will be best to wait until then to upgrade because most applications will be native for the new OS by that time. Hopefully by then we'll also see better documentation and some great toolkits to protect us from the daunting underworld of UNIX.
For the adventurous, Mac OS X is now on sale for $129. Visit www.apple.com.
Frank Beacham is an independent writer based in New York.
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