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  • Mac OS X? But Which Version?

    July 9th, 2005

    While Microsoft labors to figure out whether more features need to be dropped to get Longhorn, its next version of Windows, out the door by the end of next year, it’s a little odd to realize that there have been six major releases of Mac OS X. Six? Well, the conventional wisdom has it that the first release occurred in March, 2001, version 10.0, code-named Cheetah. But let’s not forget the Public Beta, which came out in September, 2000. Sure, it wasn’t very fast and lacked many of the features we take for granted today, but it proved to the skeptics that a successor to the venerable Mac OS was at hand, and that was a major psychological boost.

    No, I’m not going to cover the history, the road from Rhapsody to Mac OS X and, finally, to Tiger. Instead I’m going to talk about the shortcomings of simplicity. I still get occasional letters from readers about problems with Mac OS X, but I’m forced to ask “which version” before I can help. Lest we forget, there are still lots of Macs with 10.0 or 10.1, also known as Puma, out there in the wilderness. Many of these Macs were used strictly in Mac OS 9 mode, until the owner decided to give that “other” system a try, assuming some of the files weren’t deleted by accident.

    Clearly this can make things a little complicated, because every question may breed two extra questions. It’s not enough to know someone has, say, 10.3, because of all those sub-versions, ending in 10.3.9. Each of these releases has its own quirks, and not everyone went through all the updates. This may seem strange if you’re well-connected and have broadband Internet access, but don’t forget that tens of millions of people in this country still use dial-up, and retrieving updates upwards of 40MB in size is downright painful. Many just don’t bother, so they are forced to endure bugs that have long-since been solved.

    It sure doesn’t make it easy to be helpful. Usually I just ask the reader to at least try to get those maintenance updates, even if they have to persuade a dealer or a friend to dub a copy onto a CD, or, if necessary, just go out and buy the latest upgrade package (assuming their Mac can run it).

    Before you argue that it’s simpler on the Windows platform, since each major upgrade has a distinct name, the same has been true with Mac OS X since Jaguar, or 10.2, came about in 2002. In fact, Mac OS X is usually referred to these days by its feline designation these days and Apple has to be commended for that move, even if it was essentially a marketing maneuver.

    But all those sub-versions!

    In the Windows world, it is actually more complicated. Yes, there’s an SP1 or an SP2, for example, but what about all those security patches? The average Windows user wouldn’t readily know which ones were applied, so it’s no simpler on the other side of the universe.

    What about the hardware? Well, it’s true that Apple makes it complex by trying to be simple. You own a Power Mac G4? All right, which one? No, you can’t tell by the product’s label, since there’s nothing to indicate that it is, for example, the Mirrored Drive Doors version unless you understand the visual distinction. But which MDD? There were two, with the 2003 variation being the last; that one has quieter cooling fans by the way. See what I mean? Well, actually you can identify the exact model by its part number, so the first MDD Power Mac is model M8570.

    At least you know what a Dell Dimension 3000 is, right? Not so fast! There are lots of ways to customize that model with various versions of the Pentium 4, hard drives, optical drives and so on and so forth. Visually they all present the same ugly face, so if you thought figuring out which Power Mac G4 you have is difficult, try coping with that Dell. Sure, you could, I suppose, dig out that original invoice, or launch the System Information application, and just call your local PC guru to figure out what all that stuff means.

    But then I suppose it’s just as hard to tell a 2002 VW Passat GLX from the 2003 model, without checking the sticker, if you still have it, or the order form. And that’s true for many vehicle models that don’t change significantly from year to year.

    In short, Apple isn’t the only guilty party here. Too many companies make it difficult for normal people to figure out which model they really have. But Apple is supposed to set an example, the computer that just works, with the most advanced operating system on the planet.

    But there are solutions at hand that Apple might consider. One is to put a tiny sticker in an easily accessible location that identifies the precise model designation. And when you boot Mac OS X, wouldn’t it be great to see the actual version listed during the startup process? None of this is all that hard to implement, and I can’t see where it would affect Apple’s bottom line. It would probably help, since it would reduce support costs, simply because the technical support person doesn’t have to waste time instructing the caller how to figure out which Mac they have. Or maybe I’m the only one who really cares.

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