Is OS X a Big, Scary, Unknown Beast?

Originally published 01 December 2000 as a Tech Reflections article for Low End Mac.

Having received much more (very negative) feedback than usual on OS X Is a Big, Scary, Unknown Beast (not really a surprise, considering the topic), I thought I'd spend some time responding to the feedback.

Lizardboy, one of the more reasonable respondents, said:

I was around when the System 6 to 7 change occurred. I heard the same kind of stories about having to change. Well the world did not end then, and I doubt that it will this time.

This brings up a very interesting point. Apple didn't really get System 7 "right" until System 7.5. That release of the OS greatly increased the ease-of-use factor with its incorporation of several utilities that used to be third-party add-ons. The hierarchical Apple menu and the menu bar clock are the two most remembered. The incorporation of third-party add-ons leads me to this comment, also by Lizardboy:

On VersionTracker today there was a nice utility posted [Plus for X if you want to get it yourself.-ed] that lets you tweak all kinds of settings. All of these settings are currently available through the command line, which I think is what might be scaring people.

Key words: "utility" and "command line." Apple needs to be including this sort of thing with the shipping OS X. Granted, it's still a beta, and a lot will change between now and then. Consider this advice, Apple.

In addition, he hit it right on the head when he said "I think [the command line] is what might be scaring people." You're damn right it is. The Mac OS isn't known for its wonderful text interface or for its amazingly user-friendly command-line prompt! It's known for point-and-click usability. A command line prompt is not point-and-click usability. No matter what anyone tells you, Mac OS X Public Beta doesn't have the same level of point-and-click usability that the "Classic" Mac OS does.

As I was walking back to my flat this evening, mulling these thoughts over in my head, a couple very telling tests popped into my head. I call them the "Grandmother Test" and the "Mom Test." Basically, the Grandmother Test works like this: if my grandmother, who doesn't even feel entirely comfortable moving a mouse, won't be at ease with the OS, it's not friendly enough yet. The Mother Test is similar: if my mom, who is competent but by no means an expert, will have problems with a piece of software, the publisher needs to work on it more.

OS X fails both tests miserably. My mom won't want to use a command line. My grandmother will be downright scared of it. My mom, with whom I worked for hours trying to explain how the hard drive icon on the desktop is like the filing cabinet in which she keeps her paper files, will have far more trouble with a system where there's no filing cabinet obviously sitting there waiting to be opened. Grandmother? Forget it. She'll stick with her Quadra 605 running Mac OS 7.6.1, thanks.

And I'll say it one more time: until Apple can convince a lot of major developers to port their applications to OS X, the average user is going to be dissatisfied with their performance under the Classic environment. Yes, the Classic environment is emulation. True, it runs natively on the PowerPC processor, but Classic is an application that emulates the Mac OS. It makes the non-OS X applications think that they're running on Mac OS 9, and this does slow down their performance.

I've never believed that emulation was a good way to work if you need the emulated system full-time. If you need a PC for daily work, don't get VirtualPC. Get a PC. If you need to do a lot of work in Classic, keep Mac OS 9.x or set up a dual-boot system like I have.

Once again, I have faith. I think Apple will come through and, at the worst, Mac OS X 1.5 (sure sounds like a funny name for an OS if you ask me) will have most of the kinks worked out, and its usability will be back to the level of the Mac OS we all know and love.

copyright ©2000-2004 by Chris Lawson