Some 2 weeks before its expected retail release, Apple has announced the release to manufacturing of the "Gold Master" of Macintosh OS X, effectively signaling the end of the 4-year development of the company's first reliable consumer-based OS. Mac OS X is based on a UNIX core and will provide Mac users with features most Windows users have enjoyed since 1995, including protected memory and preemptive multitasking. But Mac OS X provides these technical improvements beneath a beautiful, liquid-inspired UI (dubbed Aqua) that represents the most significant improvement to the Mac's vaunted look and feel since 1984. And although the first release of Mac OS X will lack some key features, a second release this summer, which will coincide with the company finally bundling the product on its computers, should fill in the gaps.
Mac OS X began life as NextStep, a beautiful grayscale OS built on top of Steve Jobs' equally beautiful, but ill-fated, NeXT cube. The product changed names many times (as did the company itself) and eventually morphed into the cross-platform OpenStep. When Apple bought NeXT in late 1996, the company resurrected OpenStep and worked to bring the product (code-named Rhapsody) back to life. But Apple eventually deemed Rhapsody--which kept the classic Mac OS separate from the more advanced OpenStep components--untenable, and the company reconfigured the system yet again. Apple separated a server version, based largely on Rhapsody code, from the mainstream version and released Mac OS Server 2 years ago. The mainstream version became known as Mac OS X. Early in the development of Mac OS X, the company decided to support a three-way strategy--support current Mac applications, support the new Mac OS X environment, and provide a middle ground (called Carbon) in which users can upgrade classic applications to new features with a minimum of effort. That product now is ready to be released--3 years later.
But despite its rock-solid underpinnings and beautiful UI, Mac OS X arrives with controversy. Early on, Apple decided to abandon OpenStep's cross-platform nature and made Mac OS X a Mac-only OS; it won't run on PCs. The first release of Mac OS X also will ship minus a few key features: It won't play DVDs, for example, or support newer 3-D cards. Apple will rectify these issues over time, of course, but the initial release of Mac OS X will likely cause the same split in the Mac market as Windows NT 4.0 did for the PC. Unfortunately for Apple, the company's far smaller market share--albeit one that is made up of wildly loyal followers--means that it has less room for error. And Mac OS X will ship just months before the most impressive release of Windows ever, so it's unlikely that the OS will do much to gain new users. Preemptive multitasking and memory protection are long overdue on the Mac, but it's probable that software and hardware incompatibilities and steep system requirements (Mac OS X requires 128MB of RAM compared to 64MB for Windows 2000) also will keep most existing users away. Whether a large enough enthusiast market exists remains to be seen, but Apple's multi-year development of Mac OS X is unlikely to be paid back any time soon.
Apple has other problems, of course. Along with the company's ever-sliding market share is the success of open-source solutions such as Linux, which--by most estimates--has already surpassed the Mac user base. Apple purports to incorporate open-source code in Mac OS X, but open-source luminaries have derided this claim as untrue. The fact is that Mac OS X is a closed, proprietary system, just like Windows. And the Mac runs only on the ever-slipping PowerPC platform, which has lost significant ground to Intel over the years. These factors have contributed to the perception of Apple as a niche market, and it's unclear how long the company can remain a viable alternative in the face of open source and the Windows juggernaut. More than 15 years after the first Mac's release, today's Apple could face exactly the same reaction that the company received then: Yes, it's beautiful. Yes, it's easy to use. But why would I want it?
It will be interesting to see whether Apple answers this question effectively. Next month, I'll take a close look at the final release of Mac OS X.