Like many techies and computer lovers, I got my first introduction to the graphical user interface from the Apple Macintosh in the mid-1980s. I eagerly grabbed the mouse and started pointing and clicking. The experience was, above all else, great fun. Somehow, through the years, Apple has been able to capture and reproduce that same kind of fun for computer users of all ages. With the pending arrival of Mac OS X, Apple has promised even more fun—as well as much greater stability, performance, and possibilities. But will OS X help the Mac transcend its loyal but diminutive user base and finally win a respectable chunk of the business desktop? A look at the latest beta release of OS X reveals a completely new OS—on the inside and the outside—along with some serious potential for winning desktop space and a healthy dose of key shortcomings.

A new user interface
After a smooth and fast installation, the first thing you’ll notice when you boot into OS X is that you must supply a username and password (created during installation), without which you cannot gain access to the system—a welcome security feature. Once you’re in, you’ll find a completely redesigned user interface, as shown in Figure A. In fact, this is truly the most dramatic OS version upgrade in the history of the Mac. It’s no mere evolutionary upgrade, but a truly revolutionary one. How can I make such a bold claim? The file system is completely new and is based on UNIX. The file management system is totally redesigned. The standard mechanisms for accessing key applications and tools—the Apple Menu and the Control Strip—have been removed and replaced by The Dock.

Figure A
User interface with The Dock

All in all, the user experience in OS X is entirely new. The skills and experience users have gained with OS 9 and previous Mac OS releases will be of little help in OS X. It is much more like learning a new operating system than learning the nuances of an OS upgrade. In fact, those with experience in UNIX file systems and the hierarchical file managers in UNIX or Windows will have an easier time adapting to many of the features of OS X than will traditional Mac users.

That doesn’t mean that the Mac faithful won’t want to embrace the new OS and make the transition. I’m sure they will. But it will take extra time and effort, and IS managers should be aware of this fact. The OS X interface itself is pretty slick and contains a slew of new features that will ultimately be of great benefit to Mac users and the IS staff that supports them.

Aqua interface
Apple has named the new interface “Aqua,” and its translucent look and feel are visually appealing. The Dock (you can see it along the bottom of Figure A) is an easy-to-use and customizable interface for launching your most often-used applications and tools. It is also where applications go when you minimize them (à la Windows). The Dock has some pretty awesome animation effects and is a great place for shortcuts. You can even set it up to Auto Hide, similar to Windows’ Taskbar. However, the animation effects can hog a lot of memory, and the Dock doesn’t match the functionality of the Control Strip, which offers one-click access to system settings, or the Apple Menu, where you can place a lot more stuff and access hierarchical folders. The Dock looks and acts a lot cooler, but it simply isn’t as functional as the OS 9 tools.

One place where the OS X interface offers a major improvement is in file management. Since the inception of the Mac, the Finder has been the primary file management tool, allowing you to open folders and subfolders to navigate the file system. Additional features were added that allowed you to expand folders without opening them in a new window, and the Apple Menu enabled quick access to files and subfolders. The Finder is still the name of the file manager in OS X, but it is an entirely different program, as Figure B shows.

Figure B
The Finder has a file management window that works much faster and more intuitively than the Finder of old.

In the upper-right corner of the window are three options for viewing files. My favorite view is the hierarchical view, which, when you click on a folder, displays its contents in the column to the right. While the new file manager will take some time to get used to, once you have it down, there’s no going back.

The OS X user interface also makes some notable improvements in viewing icons, graphics, photos, and text, as well as other enhancements based on Adobe PDF technology that generally makes the OS X user experience more pleasant. However, with OS X, unlike previous versions of the Mac OS, beauty is not only skin-deep. With OS X, you can also get under the hood and see the inner workings of the OS. And if you know a little UNIX, you’ll like what you see.

Under the hood
Believe it or not, as major as the changes are to the Mac’s user interface in OS X, the changes to the core services and software that run the OS are even more revolutionary. The OS X kernel—which Apple has named Darwin—has more in common with Linux and UNIX than with previous releases of the Mac OS. Apple has clearly based much of this new architecture on the technologies it purchased from NeXT Computer in 1997. Apple has also made the underlying technologies of Darwin “Open Source,” using its own Apple Public Source License.

The OS X kernel derives its heritage from Carnegie-Mellon University’s Mach 3.0 and FreeBSD 3.2. It supports UNIX standards such as POSIX and uses UNIX networking applications, such as NFS, Telnet, FTP, and PING. I was giddy when I discovered that the Mac now has a command-line interface, shown in Figure C, that supports common UNIX commands. There’s also a Console utility that shows messages from the kernel and a Processes utility, shown in Figure D, that allows you to manipulate the processes running on the machine. This means that the Mac is now a lean, mean TCP/IP networking machine. It is also much more stable, and it includes legacy support for AppleTalk networks. In addition, Apple has claimed that OS X will use Apache Web server for personal file sharing from the desktop, although this feature was not yet available in the beta version.

Figure C
Command-line interface

Figure D
Processes utility

Speaking of stability, one of my main frustrations with Macs in recent years has been how crash-prone the OS is. I have seen a 400 MHz G4 running OS 9 with 256MB of RAM running one imaging application crash at least once a week for the past year. No amount of tweaking could make up for this Mac’s memory management and multitasking problems. Let’s face it: The Mac was even worse than the notorious Windows 95/98 machines in the stability category. OS X makes amends for this situation by introducing preemptive multitasking and robust memory management to the Mac. I repeatedly opened multiple applications and tried to crash OS X without any luck. Even in its beta version, OS X is remarkably more stable than OS 9.

Running software
With all of its changes, OS X demands an entirely different development paradigm. Software developed for OS 9 and earlier releases of the Mac OS will not run natively on OS X. Apple has provided two development systems for producing OS X native applications: Cocoa and Carbon. These systems have been available for some time, and many software vendors are currently preparing OS X versions of their software.

However, in OS X, Apple has also provided an OS 9 emulator named the Classic Environment, which allows you to run legacy applications that have not been reengineered for OS X. This OS 9 emulator is pretty slick. It runs invisibly in the background when you launch OS 9-compatible applications. These applications make it look like you are back in OS 9, since they don’t have the translucent “carbonized” menu bars of OS X. The emulator will run only applications, not utilities, control panel items, or extensions. I used the emulator to run Microsoft Office 98 applications and a few other programs, and it was quite reliable.

That brings us to the issue of Microsoft Office. The incumbent application suite, which has been an important part of the Mac’s resurgence in recent years, will not sport an OS X-native version until its next release—in about two years. Office 98 and the recently released Office 2001 will both run on OS X using the Classic Environment emulator. Nevertheless, even though both versions will run just fine in the emulator, the fact that there is not an Office version optimized for OS X takes a little bit of the luster away from both Microsoft Office’s Mac version and OS X itself.

Microsoft may have tried to compensate for this by developing Internet Explorer 5.0 for OS X. In the long run, the Internet browser will probably be much more crucial than the applications suite. In the next few years, Microsoft and other major software vendors will be offering their technology as a service over the Internet, and a solid Web browser will be critical.

The Mac has traditionally had a superior Internet experience with fast TCP/IP and PPP networking, good browsers, and superb graphics. The beta version of IE was included in the OS X beta, and while it has some very slick graphics (as you can see in Figure E), it was a major letdown on performance. It’s extremely slow, and some pages won’t load or load properly until refreshed two or three times. I assume that Microsoft will remedy this before OS X is released at the beginning of next year, but if an inferior version of the browser were released with OS X, it would be a major setback for the operating system.

Figure E
Beta version of IE in OS X

The future of the Mac
Just as Microsoft said it was “betting the company” on Windows 2000, Apple is doing the same with OS X. Both companies have taken their once-isolated desktop OS, integrated some UNIX networking standards, increased stability and performance, and attempted to create a new, Internet-enabled desktop. Microsoft has succeeded with Windows 2000 and Apple looks like it will succeed with OS X. The real question is whether OS X can gain some ground on business desktops, the holy grail of operating systems. While the prospect looks rather bleak, there is some potential.

In a future centered around the Web browser, Mac OS X does have a shot at leveling the playing field with Windows. In the next decade, the browser is on course to become the platform that developers build their products around in the same manner they built around Windows in the 1990s. OS X has the potential to improve the already-superior Web experience of the Mac, as long as they get a good version of Internet Explorer from Microsoft.

Apple seems content with its loyal home user, education, and graphics base and has apparently made no effort to go after some average business desktops with OS X. If they wanted to pursue Windows network integration, they would have bought a product such as Thursby Software’s DAVE, which makes the Mac a client in Windows’ Networks, and integrated into OS X. Nevertheless, Carolyn Stewart from Thursby said, “Thursby Software Systems is 99 percent certain that DAVE for OS X will be available within 90 days of OS X shipping.”

I will not be upgrading the Macs on my network until DAVE for OS X is available. The stability of OS X will save time and money, but file exchange between Mac and Windows is a headache that involves floppy disks and work-arounds without a product like DAVE. Nevertheless, I believe that OS X provides many drastic improvements for the Macintosh and will be widely embraced by Mac loyalists as well as IT departments that support Macs. Still, from an IT standpoint, I wish that Apple would take a few simple steps to build support for Windows networks into OS X.
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