Apple unveils MacOS X, readies ‘classic’ OS' retirement

Next-gen GUI wows crowd, but a long way to go before it ships

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Apple officially launched MacOS X today and, effectively reversing the company's previous system software strategy, signed the death warrant for the current, 'classic' version of the Mac operating system. Of course, 'launching' and 'releasing' are two very different concepts in the IT business, so Mac users won't get their hands on MacOS X until sometime next summer when the software will be released as a retail product. Next quarter, developers will receive the OS' final beta, but the fact that Apple doesn't plan to start bundling its "next-generation operating system" until January 2001 suggests the initial end user release may be a feature-incomplete 'preview' release just like MacOS X Server 1.0 was. Apple's spin doctors describe the 12-month gap between MacOS X's launch and its bundling with new computers as "a gentle transition" from MacOS 9 to the new operating system. Yet MacOS X is supposed not only to be easier to use than the current version -- signalling Apple's ongoing attempt to attract first-time buyers to the platform -- but completely compatible with existing apps. In which case, why is there a need for a transition period? Three reasons stand out: first, the OS, already behind schedule (it was supposed to have shipped last autumn), is a long way from completion. Second, that the much-vaunted MacOS 9 compatibility isn't quite as fast as many users will no doubt expect. Apple presumably wants to wait until it's shipping machines fast enough to handle running not only existing applications but MacOS X's MacOS 9 compatibility application (formerly known as Blue Box). Finally, for all MacOS 9's current support for the Carbon API, Apple's bridge between the classic MacOS Toolbox and MacOS X's modern OS features, developers won't support Carbon until there's a shipping operating system that actually makes use of it. In other words, the transition is more about getting developers on board than users. Carbonising an app is relatively straightforward, but it's telling that Carbon versions of some key apps, such as Adobe Photoshop, won't appear until MacOS X ships even though they will run under MacOS 9 now. Meanwhile, the fact that MacOS X will be bundled with all shipping Macs also suggests that Apple's original plan of offering MacOS X to power users equipped with latest Apple hardware and the 'classic' MacOS to everyone else may have been revised. Maintaining MacOS 9 as a separate OS strand made sense in the early days when MacOS X was still a long way off and ultimately offered users little more than a Unix core with a Mac GUI front end. Incidentally, it was interesting to note Steve Jobs' keeness to stress the similarity between MacOS X's FreeBSD core and Linux -- or rather keeness to get Apple's name attached to the popular open source OS. Since then, Apple has been working on its next-generation UI -- for the last 18 months, according to CEO Steve Jobs -- codenamed Aqua. The new UI sports a lot of cute new features -- and one or two really useful ones; most notably tightly linking dialog boxes to their parent app's window -- but is essentially little more than a colour co-ordinated version of a typical Unix desktop, with the Dock being little more than a fancy application launcher, and the Finder now just a file manager. It looks pretty but isn't exactly breaking new ground. Still, design-conscious Apple clearly wants to get users to view Aqua as the Mac interface rather than the current look and feel, which makes the retirement of MacOS 9 more important than ever. And, as Apple has learned with the iMac, cosmetic computers sell, especially to consumers, so the archly arty new UI isn't entirely design for the sake of design -- it has important branding and business benefits too. ® Related Stories Apple's Internet strategy takes shape Apple's Jobs declared CEO for life Analysts bullish about Apple ahead of Expo announcements

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