Running with Apple's big cats

Who needs to grab Mac OS X 1.0, and who needs to wait? Plus: Adios, MacWEEK.

It's been years since my last neuropsychology class, but I get the distinct impression that Daniel Drew Turner and I struck a nerve with our story revealing some of the rough spots in the forthcoming 1.0 release of Mac OS X.

To recap ever so briefly: According to multiple sources who've closely watched the development of Apple Computer Inc.'s long-awaited OS rewrite over the years, the first commercial release of Mac OS X--slated to ship March 24--will be missing a few conspicuous features: support for DVD playback or authoring, support for analog video, support for the latest graphics accelerators from Nvidia and ATI, and full support for symmetrical multiprocessing.

In other words, while this release (code-named Cheetah) will provide most of the stability and performance promised for the Unix-based OS, many of the hardware features recently touted by Apple won't gain full support until this summer's build, code-named Puma, which will ship pre-loaded on all new Macs.

Combined with an initial dearth of Mac OS X-native applications, this development strategy helps to clarify Apple CEO Steve Jobs' announcement that the Mac maker will soft-pedal the initial launch and save its marketing firepower for the summer.

It also indicates that the Cheetah release probably won't be the OS Mac professionals--especially those working in video or multimedia--will want to standardize on. Instead, most of them will probably want to wait until some persistent bugs have been ironed out and DVD support and the rest of the multimedia arsenal have been folded in. (They'll also want to hold off until vital third-party software and hardware manufacturers supply X-native drivers and certify their systems for Apple's.)

That's neither unusual nor surprising. After all, any professional user with any experience of the history of OS development probably knows better than to jump aboard a 1.0 release, whether it's from Apple, Microsoft Corp. or any of the myriad Linux developers. Nor does it undermine the very real advantages of a remarkably stable, kernel-based, multitasking architecture.

One Mac veteran familiar with Cheetah assured me that Apple's two-stage strategy will provide a golden opportunity for IT departments, major clients and third-party developers to ease into the biggest change to the Mac OS since the platform's inception. "No one who's in the business of doing actual work are going to consider using Mac OS X for the first months," he said. "This release is about having a solid interface; having this next quarter to finish the missing features; giving people this time to test the OS and prepare for customers and people they are supporting.

"This will be fine; applications will roll out over the next three or four months. Anyone who expected Apple just to flip a switch and change [to Mac OS X] -- that's never how an OS transition happens.

"It's like a river, where the sandbank builds and grows; that's exactly what's going to happen with OS X."

I like this analogy very much, and I'm optimistic that Apple will be able to cultivate both the Mac OS X user base and software selection in the months leading up to July's Macworld Expo/New York. In the meantime, however, it's appropriate for end users to be informed about the limitations of this first commercial release before they lay out their $129 and switch over their systems wholesale.

It's also appropriate for users who are paying top dollar to be the first on their block with a SuperDrive or Nvidia GeForce 3 card to be aware that installing Cheetah will limit their ability to take advantage of these premium-priced options.

Mac OS X 1.0 will be an impressive piece of work, but it won't be the working professional's OS; that distinction will fall to the summer revision--and I'm confident that Apple wouldn't have it any other way.

Requiem for a heavyweight
I'd be remiss if I put this column to bed without acknowledging Friday's final passing of MacWEEK, long the pre-eminent organ for Mac news and the proving ground for a formidable roster of tech journalists.

I was privileged to work for MacWEEK from 1989 until the beginning of 2000. During my tenure I honed my editorial chops in a number of guises under four outstanding editors-in-chief (Dan Ruby, Dan Farber, Mark Hall and Rick LePage) and two equally talented editors (Henry Norr and David Morgenstern). I also was privileged to work alongside an all-star cast of talented professionals united in their high regard for the Mac and its users.

Ultimately, I took over the operation of MacWEEK when it made the transition to the Web; thanks to the herculean efforts of (among others) John Batteiger, Daniel Drew Turner, Jeff Cheney, Wendy Mattson and a plethora of notable contributors, we kept the Mac torch burning under profoundly reduced circumstances--and had a great time doing it.

I've tried to bring the lessons I learned there to ZDNet News' Mac coverage; I know I'll carry the knowledge I gained there far beyond these virtual pages.