OS X? What's That? Looking At OS X Through Bifocals
March 28th, 2001

"OS X? OS X? Whatta you mean OS X? I'm still learning OS 9 and it is just fine! I just learned what OS stands for! I'm just getting comfortable with my computer! Don't tell me about OS X! I never had to make all these changes with my good ol' IBM Selectric! What? Well, no, I guess I didn't have e-mail or the Internet with my good ol' Selectric or the ability to delete mistakes, BUT.. well, no, I couldn't make my own greeting cards either, but I still don't want to have to learn something new!"

Just substitute OS 9.0 for OS X and I'm basically quoting myself when my children said I should put OS 9.0 on my machine. Sometimes things just move too fast for me in the computer world. I don't understand enough about how my Mac operates to understand why all my Mac friends are so excited about this OS X thing. Within The Mac Observer organization we have an internal list that allows the editor to communicate with all of us at once as well as allowing us to communicate with each other. Last night I saw the following message from one of our staff:

Arrived at FedEx Ramp JAMAICA NY 03/24/2001 08:30
Left FedEx Sort Facility MEMPHIS TN 03/24/2001 04:48
Left FedEx Sort Facility MEMPHIS TN 03/24/2001 04:39

He was tracking his package containing the new OS X application and keeping everyone informed – and, get this, they all wanted to know. All weekend, they are trying things and letting each other know what works, what they have problems with, and what cool things they are finding. This morning (Monday) I had 45 messages in this vein. I have stopped reading them, because I don't understand what all they are talking about. I, very foolishly it turns out, actually intervened in the middle of all this madness and asked them why they were so excited. Like any of them had time to answer my questions. Actually that is not quite true. Two TMO staffers, Eolake Stobblehouse and Editor-in-chief Bryan Chaffin did try to help me out. Following is some of that discussion and as a result I think I now understand why OS X is so important to the Mac community.

Why It is Such a Big Deal

First of all, it really is a big deal. All previous Mac operating systems have been based on the original OS created in 1984. Each one built on top of the previous one and was thereby limited by them. There were some efforts made by Apple in the 90's to build a new operating system from scratch, but they were dismal failures. OS X is, a whole new system, based on the work done by Steve Jobs when he ran NeXT Computer between his earlier stint at Apple and his current one. It is also based on UNIX. It is not important that we understand UNIX (it's a good thing!), other than to know that UNIX is a very powerful and robust operating system that is now, for the first time, available to the average user through OS X.

Examples of Differences

Any time I have seen discussion about OS X, one theme seems to be uppermost on everyone's mind – reliability (stability). At first I couldn't understand that because I have always considered my Mac to be extremely reliable. After all, I use Windows at work – I know first hand what unreliable means. It made more sense to me when Bryan explained that under the current operating system if any application crashes, the whole computer usually shuts down and you have to restart it. That is true, I just had never considered that to be "unreliability." Unreliability to me means that an application crashes and the hard drive crashes and it takes 3 technicians 3 days to get going again. Welcome to the world of Windows. OS X does not let that happen. That is certainly the primary concern for Eolake who told me:

I am a pretty mellow fellow, and few things get me frothing at the mouth. Apart from the state of "support" in the computer industry, one of these things is the instability of computer operating systems. I am a professional user, and when I am surfing, e-mailing, image editing, writing, and doing web design all at once, I am somewhat less than pleased when the computer suddenly crashes, taking everything I am working on down with it.

This is basic, one of the major reasons for making a whole new system from the bottom: if you keep building on top of something small, the bottom will collapse. If something needs to be big (have you looked at the size of your system folder recently?), then the foundation must be built for it.

The day I will be a truly happy computer user is the day when I will *never* have to know anything about what is happening inside the machine, and the thing just keeps working and working and working, just like me :)

Some Other Major Changes

In OS X the user never has to adjust the memory to keep applications running at their peak. It is done automatically for you. (Directions on adjusting memory when your OS is 9 or below can be found in a previous column.)

OS X also introduces Aqua which is a whole new user interface (how everything looks). TMO published examples of this on Monday of this week and you can check out the images if you want to get an idea of the differences.

Bottom Line

Obviously there is a lot more to this, but the bottom line is if you like to experiment and play around with your computer, you may want to install OS X. It is quite apparent that all the TMO staffers are having a ball with it. For the rest of us, there is no reason to rush out and buy it. If your machine is running well and you feel the current OS meets your needs then leave well enough alone. Let the techies work out the bugs first. [Editor's Note: This is good advice.]

If you have any questions, comments, or tips, let me know and I may include them in a future column.