Mac OS X: Beta late than never

News analysis: The Register's Tony Smith sizes up Apple's decision to hold the commercial release of Mac OS X until January 2001 and explains why shrink-wrap counts.

London -- Apple Computer Inc.'s decision to push back the final release of Mac OS X to January 2001 is a product slip, like it or not. But in this day and age, does it really matter all that much?

Arguably not. The current release pattern for commercial operating systems was set by Microsoft, with the long -- and frequently extended -- gestation of Windows 2000 (or NT 5.0, as it was originally called).

In comparison with Win2000's frequent delays, Mac OS X's latest slip doesn't seem so bad, and at least Apple can claim -- as it has been busily doing over the last day or so -- that the new schedule sort-of matches the one CEO Steve Jobs set down last January at Macworld Expo.

Of course, the claim that Apple (aapl) is shipping the same product, just changing the name, is pure PR spin. There's a big difference between a public beta-test release and a shrink-wrapped OS, if only in terms of users' and the industry's perception of it. Shrink wrapping an OS tells the world it's done and ready for the rest of us.

That's why the likes of Red Hat (rhat) and Corel (corl) spend a fortune boxing up Linux into neat CD-and-manual combo packages. They want the mainstream to view the open-source OS as a product for them as much as it's for the techie hard core.

And the same is true for Mac OS X. "Public beta" says "Unfinished software; use with caution." If Apple had a product it could put in a box and sell, it would do so, and we learned this week that it can't -- at least not this summer.

So if we ignore Apple's semantic juggling -- "We're delivering the same software at the same time, but with different names" -- what does the delay mean?

At one level, it's actually a positive move. Apple has not overturned Jobs' statement that next January all new Macs will ship with Mac OS X pre-installed. This will allow Apple to launch Version 1.0 of the OS with a flourish that would not have been impossible if the software had already been on sale for the best part of six months.

Apple (aapl) Instead, we'll get it all at once in a launch that will have much more impact than it would have had otherwise. And hopefully it will come with all the hoopla that accompanied the launch of Windows 95 -- something that will make the wider IT and global media sit up and take note.

In the meantime, the public beta will allow Mac diehards and large-scale users to evaluate the new OS and figure out in plenty of time what its adoption will mean for them. It also gives the software developers more time to support Mac OS X and make sure that support is good. (Though, with Carbon now well established through Mac OS 9, they have little excuse for not shipping solid Mac OS X-compatible apps.)

The public test release should also ensure better quality control than previous versions of the Mac OS have seen, simply by the sheer volume of testers the program will have. That's why Microsoft made such a big deal of the various Windows 2000/NT 5.0 preview releases.

The snag here is that Mac OS X is not as inherently complex as Windows 2000. Unless Apple is keeping a heck of a lot of features under wraps, the Microsoft product has far more components than Apple's, largely because of its high-end server and enterprise computing role, which Mac OS X really doesn't have (at least not yet). Windows 2000's delays were largely concerned with these facilities, not with getting the core OS right, since that had largely been accomplished with NT 4.0. Mac OS X does contain much that's new, but with its OpenStep/Rhapsody background it's not like it's a totally built-from-the-ground-up OS.

Apple, though, doesn't have Microsoft's resources, so it's important not to compare the two companies too closely. And since no one but the hard-core Mac faithful is expecting Mac OS X to dent Microsoft's market share -- that's Linux's job -- any comparison is arguably fruitless.

And that's the point here. Now that Microsoft has "won the OS wars" -- Jobs' words, not mine -- it doesn't matter when Apple ships. Public beta or shrink-wrap, many Mac users will lap up Mac OS X up just the same. The rest -- all those still running System 7.5, for instance, and there are more of them than you might think -- won't. But since none of them are likely to switch over to Windows at any time in the future, so what?

That suggests there's some truth in recent comments from Apple product marketing VP Phil Schiller: "There is certainly more work to finish off the details of [Mac OS X]. There is some fine-tuning, but the majority of the product is in place." Apple could have shipped this summer, but it makes sense to wait a little longer until the time is right.

And when will the time be right? Well, next January is a good bet. Apple will have a new shrink-wrapped and pre-installed OS ready to take advantage of new hardware -- not only, perhaps, multi-CPU machines, but Macs with the next-generation, 1GHz-oriented, Velocity-Engined-to-the-teeth PowerPC G4 Plus.

Hey, maybe Apple will be able to take on Microsoft again, after all!

Tony Smith is managing editor at The Register, the IT industry newswire with attitude. He welcomes comments, leaks, tip-offs and industry gossip at tony.smith@theregister.co.uk.