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  • As Apple Prepares for Two Anniversaries

    April 1st, 2006

    Did he say two? Yes he did, for in addition to celebrating its 30th anniversary on Saturday, April 1st, Apple this week observes the fifth anniversary of Mac OS X. Yes, it’s hard to imagine that Apple’s “world’s greatest operating system” first made its debut in March, 2001.

    Now if you want to be highly technical, there was a public beta version six months earlier, and many of you regard version 10.0 as simply beta 2. But I’ll go with the official rather than the unofficial here, and accept the fact that the product rollout I witnessed during a press briefing at Apple headquarters represented a real attempt at delivering the first version of the long-delayed system upgrade.

    As you read in yesterday’s commentary, I don’t regard Mac OS X as necessarily perfect even after four major upgrades have shipped, and as we consider the possibilities of a fifth revision, Leopard, I still remain optimistic that things will continue to get better.

    You see, the biggest danger for Apple is to succumb to Microsoft’s disease of adding so many new features the system seems to sink under the weight of tens of millions of lines of computer code. Sure, it’s important from a marketing standpoint to have something new to sell to entice you to buy an upgrade kit or, even better, buy a new Mac to make sure the system runs as efficiently as possible. At the same time, adding features simply for the sake of adding features doesn’t necessarily make an operating easier to use. Unless those features enhance usability, it just engenders more confusion, and there’s plenty of that going around. Don’t believe me? Just talk with any novice user and question them carefully about some of the Mac OS X features you take for granted.

    Indeed, using Mac OS X has been quite a ride, thank you. Since I was assigned to write articles and books on the subject, I got an early look at the beta version, during a briefing with a dude from Apple corporate communications at CNET’s headquarters in San Francisco. Yes, I was polite and asked the key questions that I needed clarification about before going home to put the system through its paces and write the article.

    In those days, it was a barren landscape. Lest you forget, the Apple menu was a non-functioning icon in the middle of the screen. In fact, with the dearth of native Mac OS X applications around, there really wasn’t much you could do other than observe the eye candy and get on with your business. Back then, even when 10.0 came out, I had to frequently revert to Mac OS 9 to get serious work done. Sure, applications can all right in Classic mode, but printing was another matter entirely, and it took a major overhaul to get it right. My office laser printer sort of worked, but it frequently stopped in its tracks with strangely-worded PostScript errors.

    A few 10.0.x maintenance updates came about and I spent more and more time in the new rather than the old, and by the time 10.1 appeared, it was a full-time process. Sure it was slower than Mac OS 9 in some respects, but it got faster over time. Microsoft, as it ponders the massive system requirements for good performance in Tiger, hasn’t gotten the message.

    You can take the arrival of Mac OS X as a major factor in Apple’s resurgence. Sure, many of you might think that the iMac’s debut in 1998 heralded the revival of a company given up for dead more times than I can count. But that was only the beginning. At the time, Apple still couldn’t get its industrial-strength operating system out the door. Mac OS X, then known as Rhapsody, was little more than a promise and it would miss shipping dates before things get nailed down.

    The other big development in ensuring Apple’s stellar growth for the 21st century was, of course, the iPod. You might think Steve Jobs and crew were great visionaries, that they anticipated it would soon own the portable music player business and become a cultural icon. But that’s not true, and I expect that its stellar success caught them off guard. It’s not something they necessarily anticipated at the time, but they were on a roll. Adding Windows support and introducing a music store to complete the ecosystem cemented its success.

    For once, Apple found itself in the unique position of dominating a market, and having all comers, including Microsoft, confront abject failure while attempting to keep up. However, the iPod and the music service also caught the ire of the Beatles variation of Apple, which is why there is that court date in the UK that may result in Apple having to pay huge sums to the company run by the surviving members of the Fab Four.

    I wouldn’t begin to predict just what might happen to Apple Computer over the next thirty years, except to hope that it’ll continue to amaze us. How could it be otherwise?

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