Apple restructures with OS X

Apple restructures with OS X

Graphical user interfaces have defined computing for the past 15 years. For the first half of that period, Apple's Macintosh computers represented the acme of the art, earning a reputation for ease of use, power and reliability.

Since then, Microsoft's commercial muscle has wiped out any of the Mac's remaining "pioneer's advantage". These days, GUIs are so tightly coupled with their operating systems that meaningful competition between them has all but disappeared. After all, it hardly matters if Mac's GUI is more user-friendly than others in the market. Companies do not choose among GUIs; they treat them as features of the operating system itself.

People may bemoan the below-par GUIs that this dearth of competition has spawned, but most customers have no choice but to throw up their hands, open their wallets and buy Windows. For better or worse, the GUI wars are over.

But there is hope for Apple yet. True, the Microsoft Windows family as well as the Windows derivatives that open up Linux machines will continue to dominate the desktop market place. But the Mac OS remains in the ring with a very steady group of followers. And Apple recently released its public beta for the desktop version of Mac OS X, which showcases a wholly revamped GUI, known as Aqua. OS X, which ships early 2001, just may boost Mac OS's relevance in corporate eyes.

Mac OS X represents a fundamental and long-overdue restructuring of the Macintosh environment. In many respects, the architecture reads like an all-star squad. The kernel is Mach, the core functions are from BSD 4.4 Unix, the printing features use Adobe PDF, and the 3D imaging uses an implementation of the OpenGL standard.

The combination of these features and Apple's new Quartz 2D imaging technology (which also uses PDF) has the potential to provide a rock-solid, graphics-intensive computing experience. To really give the Mac a push in the market, this foundation must prove solid and reliable. Apple had this in mind, no doubt, when it configured such a hotshot combination of architecture.

For more than 16 years, the primary business case for Macintosh systems has been ease of use. In our experience, they are easier to support and troubleshoot than either Unix or Windows systems. Admittedly, many Macs are islands in a sea of remotely managed desktops. But in most organisations, they are clustered in a graphics production department of loyal Mac users who often provide better mutual support than IT can deliver.

Aqua enhances the Mac's reputation for elegant simplicity. It takes advantage of the underlying OS' graphics and multi-tasking capabilities to deliver a noticeable improvement to the user experience. For example, dialogue boxes are more closely associated with their parent applications, sliding down from the title bar instead of popping out in your face. A host of changes such as these gives the OS a sleek and simple feel, evoking possible GUIs of the future.

Mac OS X's pre-emptive multi-tasking is a joy to anyone accustomed to the (not very) cooperative multi-tasking used by current versions of Mac OS and Windows. Print and save processes no longer monopolise the foreground, allowing users to focus on immediate tasks, instead of waiting patiently while a window displays the status of a save function or counts down the number of pages remaining in a print job.

Overall, Aqua presents a radically simplified approach to GUI design principles, to the benefit of users. Portions of the application display which aren't constantly used, such as tree views, can be placed in "drawers" which slide out of sight when not needed. By avoiding "window proliferation" and by using the underlying capabilities of Mac OS X, Aqua provides better use of screen real estate and a more pleasant user experience than any of its predecessors. This is crucial in terms of user productivity and workflow. Come early next year, Mac-heavy companies should get ready for a real treat: their employees won't want to go home.

The Bottom Line

Mac OS X Public Beta - four stars

Business Case: Many companies still retain a number of Mac OS systems for graphics and pre-press work. This demanding group of users will appreciate Aqua's simple GUI and Mac OS X's multi-tasking capabilities.

Technology Case: Aqua allows developers to section off pieces of the screen display into disappearing "drawers" and better integrates dialogue boxes with their parent windows.

Pros:-l Uncluttered interface simplifies project management and day-to-day tasksl Print and save processes allow users to quickly move on to other tasksCons-:l Limited number of Macs in most companies means few users will see benefits of GUI improvementsl Very latest Macs requiredPlatforms: Most G3-based, all G4-based Power Macintoshes with 128MB RAMPrice-: Local pricing yet to be announced.

Shipping: Early 2001.


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