OS X Is a Big, Scary, Unknown Beast

Originally published 21 November 2000 as a Tech Reflections article for Low End Mac.

I've been using Macs since 1988, when I was just eight years old. I started on a Macintosh SE running System 6. Since then, I've seen three major version changes: System 7, Mac OS 8, and Mac OS 9. None has really fundamentally changed the way I interact with my Macs — the Finder windows are basically the same, the Desktop is basically the same, and the menus are basically the same. Sure, there are a few new features: popup windows are a really handy thing, the hierarchical Apple Menu is quite nice, and the multitasking in Mac OS 8 and up is far superior to anything in System 7.x or earlier.

But make no mistake about it. I've seen the future, in the form of OS X DP4 and the OS X Public Beta, and it is, quite honestly, a little scary. Speaking as someone whom many consider a Mac expert, and certainly as a Mac power user, the change from the Mac OS we know today to the Mac OS we will know in another six months is not one to be taken lightly.

Why does OS X scare me? Probably most importantly, it's still very unfamiliar. I haven't had a great deal of time to work with it, and there's a very good reason for this — I simply can't be bothered to use a system where 90 percent of my applications run in emulation. It's the same reason I use my copy of VirtualPC about once a month.

While having the Classic environment is a nice attempt at backward compatibility, it's far from perfect — and as of the Public Beta, it's still too slow for every day use. As more and more developers migrate their products to OS X (or at least add Carbon compliance), I'll be able to use OS X more and more efficiently without having to revert to Classic. Familiarity will come with time.

The way the Finder works isn't fundamentally different, but it's certainly a big change. The Windows-like (and NeXT-like, apparently) navigation is still something I'm very much getting used to. It still doesn't feel quite right to me. A good portion of the keystrokes are different, and those are taking time to get used to as well. Again, given time, this won't feel so strange, and I'll be more efficient with the OS.

The Desktop is no longer a desktop; it's just sort of a blank space behind the windows. Apple needs to bring back the icon of the hard disk. I can't imagine how difficult it will be for new Mac OS X users to "find" their hard drive and all their files if they close all the Finder windows. The apple in the center of the menu bar is bothersome as well; it seems like it ought to do something instead of just sit there. Both the Apple and Application menus in their current forms, though imperfect, are very useful tools, and OS X drops these as we know them.

Don't get me wrong — I like where Apple is going with OS X. I'm looking forward to fully preemptive multitasking and the stability of BSD Unix. I absolutely love the Dock — it's what the Windows 95 Taskbar has always wished it could be someday. I think OS X is going to be a great operating system once the human interface kinks get worked out. In fact, I eagerly anticipate the final release, because I don't think Apple can take the Beta to market right now and do anything but shoot themselves in the foot with it (though it's exactly what Microsoft would probably have tried to do).

But for now, OS X is a big, scary, unknown beast outside knocking on my door. It's not the operating system for Everyman, not yet. Give it six months, let us die-hard Mac geeks play with it and blast Apple until we're blue in the face, and then give it a try. It won't be so scary by then.

copyright ©2000-2004 by Chris Lawson