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Mac OS X 10.2 Jaguar: Is This the Purrfect Time to Switch?

With the release two weeks ago of Apple's latest operating system, Mac OS X 10.2 Jaguar (see my review), the Cupertino company has finally released a viable alternative to the Windows XP juggernaut, especially for people interesting in digital media tasks. But is it enough? Despite months of "Switch" ads aimed at luring Windows users to the Macintosh fold, steady improvements to its core OS, and a stable full of desirable hardware, Apple Computer continues to lose market share, even in its one-time stronghold, the education market. Is Jaguar the purrfect OS upgrade, or just the latest in a long line of capable also-rans?

I guess that depends on who you are, and the question can't be answered in a vacuum. First, Mac OS X won't be viable if no one uses it and existing Mac users, which number roughly 20 million strong, according to Apple, haven't been upgrading to OS X in big numbers. By July 2002, eighteen months after the first OS X release, only 2.5 million Apple customers had switched to OS X as their primary Mac operating system, mostly because of performance issues, and software and hardware incompatibilities. To put these numbers in perspective, consider Windows XP, which shipped just after Mac OS X 10.1 last fall: Microsoft has sold over 50 million licenses to WinXP in less than a year. Game over, right?

Well, not exactly. As Apple is quick to point out, niche markets can be big money makers, and the company's global market share is similar to that obtained by BMW in the worldwide automotive market, and few people would label BMW an also-ran. On the other hand, BMW doesn't face a single, ultra-competitive foe that controls roughly 96 percent of its market. But it wouldn't take too much for Apple to double its market share, and that, of course, is the hope for the company's often vocal followers. And Apple has big plans for making this happen.

The first plan involves gorgeous hardware, like the new 17" iMac, svelte PowerBook G4, and award-winning iPod, which was recently released in various Windows-compatible versions. Hardware as beautiful as Apple's is uncommon in the PC industry, and its innovative designs drive people to and the company's numerous retail stores. These venues attempt to show that, small though it may be, the Mac market is still big enough to attract numerous hardware and software makers, supplying Mac users with all they need to work and play with their computers. But Apple's hardware solutions come with a not-so-hidden downside: The PowerPC architecture that drives modern Macs has fallen significantly behind the Intel and AMD architectures PC users enjoy. This means that Windows-based PCs are usually much faster, much cheaper, and easier to find, fix, and maintain than Macs. And the performance gap, especially, is widening daily.

Another part of Apple's plan is the Switch ad campaign, which shows real ex-Windows users who have switched to the Mac. These ads are curious for many reasons, the most obvious of which is that they don't show or discuss any of Apple's actual products. It's unclear whether the Switch ads have had any significant affect on Mac's market share, but we can expect Apple to trumpet any successes it may eventually see. On that note, one important Apple market is indeed switching, but away from the Mac: Once the dominant player in the education market, Apple's market share is now less than half of that owned by market leader Dell Computer. Apple once owned over 50 percent of the education market, but now commands less than 12 percent, according to market research firm International Data Corporation (IDC). That's bad news no matter how you slice it.

But it is the final part of Apple's plan that holds the most promise. Though the company is widely known as a hardware maker, it has also been in the software business from the earliest days, and its modern Mac OS X 10.2 Jaguar release is sure to gain some converts. Essentially a minor upgrade to previous Mac OS X versions, Jaguar includes numerous small updates and refinements, but few major new innovations. And this is the problem in a nutshell: Though Apple has produced its most compelling OS release ever, it might not be enough to increase adoption.

So what's new in Jaguar? Apple told me that this release includes over 150 new features, and I find no reason to disagree with that. Jaguar includes excellent communications tools, such as a new version with an interesting junk mail removal feature, an attractive AOL Instant Messenger (AOL) front-end called iChat, and a new system-wide address book; all of these tools are roughly analogous to what XP users might expect on their own systems. Jaguar's Web browsing experience, however, lags significantly because of bizarre performance issues, and I have yet to find a Web browser that performs adequately under any Mac OS X version. It's frustrating.

Jaguar also includes a new QuickTime (QT) version, QT 6, which supports the outdated MPEG-4 video standard and instant-on Web streaming. Apple's Sherlock application has been significantly updated with support for numerous Web services, so you can search for things such as movie listings and reviews, eBay auctions, and restaurants, while its file finding capabilities have been added back to OS X's shell, the Finder. Nice, but nothing critical. Conversely, Jaguar's Help system is an embarrassment.

One area where Apple has improved OS X dramatically is Windows network interoperability. Answering all of my complaints about previous versions, you can now browse Windows workgroups natively from Jaguar and even appear on a Windows network as a Windows machine. However, you still can't share printers attached to Windows PCs. I'd love to see that feature added.

But Jaguar's biggest strength, as always, is its so-called iApps, none of which have been upgraded for this release. These include iTunes for digital music recording and management; iPhoto for digital photo acquisition and management; iMovie for digital movie acquisition, editing, and distribution; and, on recordable DVD-equipped Macs, iDVD, for creating home DVD movies. Most of these applications are very good, but iPhoto and iTunes are easily matched by the built-in tools in XP. And while iMovie is much more sophisticated that XP's Windows Movie Maker, it's also more complicated and works only with digital video inputs. iDVD is simply the most wonderful piece of software on the planet, unmatched on any system. And iDVD remains the key reason to consider a Mac.

In case it's not obvious, the problem with Jaguar is that it doesn't overtly improve Apple's lot in life. Macs are still better than Windows PCs if you need to deal primarily with digital video, and they are equally capable to Windows PCs for digital audio and photos, though not nearly as viable for most other computer-based tasks, such as game playing, productivity applications, Web and software development, and so on. That Jaguar has over 150 small improvements speaks more to the fact that OS X simply needed that much refinement than it does to any superiority when compared to Windows.

But don't take that as a criticism of Jaguar, which is a refined, stable, and mature operating system. The problem is inertia. As my wife recently commented, Mac OS X can't simply be as good or a little better than Windows for most people to give up their Windows systems, and take the time to learn the new system, and get all of their valuable data converted and copied over. No, it has to be two or three times as good. Otherwise, the costs are just too great to justify the aggravation. And while Jaguar is, at best, a viable alternative to Windows, one that many people would be quite happy with, it's not better than Windows XP. And it most certainly isn't two or three times as good.

That said, I really do like Mac OS X, especially this refined new Jaguar release. But I wonder whether its good enough to make anyone switch. I'm interested in hearing from readers that have made or even considered the OS X switch? What factors lead you to consider this path, and what made you ultimately decide to stick with, or abandon, Windows?

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