The Night Before X-Ness

SAN FRANCISCO (04/19/2000) - Most stage performers would be delighted to turn in a performance that had people talking a week later. But at January's Macworld Expo, Steve Jobs unveiled Apple Computer Inc.'s Mac OS X-and gave a performance that had the Mac community reeling for months. Here was a radically different OS-one whose underpinnings were based on Unix, the same system that runs your bank, airlines, and government-that looked like the gorgeous, futuristic offspring of Kai's Power Goo and Colgate's Berrylicious toothpaste.

To this day, many Mac fans' euphoria and fear show no signs of abating.

To see what all the fuss is about, visit http://www.apple.com/macosx/aqua.html for some pictures and movies of this new interface (named Aqua). While you're online, visit some of the Web sites that take a critical look at the new design. They include the mostly pessimistic thoughts of interface guru Bruce Tognazzini (http://www.asktog.com:80/limit.html) and the mostly optimistic thoughts of "iGeek" columnist David Every (http://www.macweek.com).

The thing is, most of the criticism concerns the Aqua look-not Mac OS X as a whole. That's like critiquing the deck chairs on the Titanic. When Jobs did his demo, a sudden panic struck observant audience members: in Mac OS X, there's no hard drive icon on the screen! In fact, no icons show up on the desktop when you insert disks. Instead, you have to click on an icon called Computer to see your disk icons.

What is this-Windows? Suddenly the Mac faithful became intensely aware of just how different Mac OS X is going to be. It's a completely new OS, lacking many of the standard Mac features we've come to love.

Ever since that day, I've spent a lot of time studying Apple's demos, querying developers, and asking questions of experts such as Scott Anguish, who runs the Stepwise Web site for Mac OS X developers (http://www.stepwise.com) as well as its free mailing list. Here are the answers I've unearthed. Consider this an effort to quell the panic-or rather, to direct it at issues really worth worrying about.

Let's start with extensions; they're unequivocally gone in Mac OS X. Good riddance, I say; extensions are the biggest cause of instability and crashes.

In their place are more rugged Mac mechanisms that resemble background applications-and can't lock up your machine.

The Apple and Application menus, the two screen cornerstones of the current Mac OS, disappear in Mac OS X, too. In their place, Apple offers the Dock-a row of icons at the bottom of the screen. You install new "Apple menu items" by dragging their icons onto the Dock; you also switch between running programs by clicking on their Dock icons. This is the part Apple will have to fix. Mac OS X does away with almost every Mac OS 9 compact file-listing mechanism: the Control Strip, pop-up windows, Application Switcher, Launcher, and of course the Apple menu. The Dock is only one layer deep. It can't come close to replacing all of those other organizing structures.

Then there's the desktop-yes, the glorious place mat that has defined the Mac for so many years. As OS X stands now, the desktop is gone. The only things you can put onto your screen backdrop are aliases; you can't save or download files directly onto it. Because there's no real desktop, you also lose such features as clipping files, Internet location files, and desktop printer icons. And speaking of icons, labels and custom icons are apparently history, too.

Now, Apple's entire purpose in creating Mac OS X was to build the most stable, trouble-free OS in the world. If one Mac OS X application crashes, your others keep flying high; thanks to OS X's Unix-like underpinnings, the days of restarting the Mac after a crash are over.

So the real question is, How much are you willing to sacrifice in order to gain the juicy stability (and the stunning animated visuals) of Mac OS X? How badly will you miss the familiar features that are different or absent in Mac OS X?

I'm not among the panickers; there are still plenty of reasons for optimism.

First, the finished Mac OS X is still months away; nothing is set in stone.

Second, Apple may not care what we, the users, think-but it does listen when software companies and huge accounts grumble, which they'll certainly do if they find Mac OS X less productive. Third, the shareware programmers of the world are likely to fix Mac OS X's shortcomings within weeks of its release.

And finally, Mac OS X isn't the end of the line. Apple will have another chance to get it right-in Mac OS X.I.

DAVID POGUE (davidpogue.com) will write Mac OS X: The Missing Manual (Pogue Press/O'Reilly, 2000) as soon as there's an OS to write about.

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