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Perfect friends and perfect OSes

by Chuck Cramer, letters@macedition.com, 24 March 2001

When you meet a person and they don't make the most perfect first impression, do you write that person off forever? When Mac OS X arrives after March 24th and comes without a DVD player and with bugs, are you going to write that version off forever? As I peruse the threads at Slashdot, I see the New Mentality – I want it all, and I want it now – supercede logic faster than a tech stock drop. I will be the first to admit I’m Apple-biased, but when Mac OS X is on death row before the trial begins, I’m typing away before I even shower.

Let me make a suggestion, one that may confound those subscribing to this new mentality: Can we wait until it’s out? Can we talk about possibilities instead of shortcomings? I know, I know, it’s not cool anymore to be positive about anything, but let’s go back in time, to a place long forgotten, and see what it’s like.

The furious debate at Slashdot is over reports that Mac OS X is missing some key "features" and may still have (impossible!) some lingering bugs. What do these things mean to OS X, Apple's market and the end user? Lack of DVD playback in the initial OS X release has garnered the lion’s share of criticism. Comment after comment in the Slashdot thread dooms Apple’s latest work. No one will purchase a machine with an OS that won’t play DVDs. DVD playback is a must for a company whose only claim to fame is its multimedia prowess. While I will agree it’s rather odd that Apple doesn’t have DVD support in place, I won’t agree it’s a key feature of the OS, nor will I agree that the lack of inclusion in Mac OS X 1.0 is of much importance in the overall picture.

Apple makes mistakes. Microsoft makes mistakes. Last time I checked, there were at least seven people in the world that made, or possibly contributed to, mistakes. But lack of DVD playback in the first release of OS X is not a mistake. Why? Because it’s not a key feature of the OS. It’s like saying Solitaire is a key feature of Windows – there is a manual version with curious handheld printed pieces of cardboard that function in a similar manner. Likewise, there’s a cheap piece of technology, starting at less than $1600, that hooks up to your TV and plays DVDs. I got one for less than what OS X will cost.

Mac OS X is an extreme change from the Mac OS you know, both in terms of the user interface and its abilities and capabilities. We’re talking fundamental change here. What we get with OS X is nothing like the jump from OS 8 to 9. The Mac OS hasn’t just been changed; it’s been rewritten from the ground up. What we're getting are things that the Mac OS has been missing for too long: Modern services like preemptive multitasking, memory protection, rock-solid networking, system-wide multiprocessor support, a new graphics engine and other features too numerous to mention.

Yet, there still seems to be plenty of room to argue vehemently over the small things. DVD playback is the most furious part of the discussion, but there's also concern about the Macs shipping with DVD writers, too. The argument goes like this: Apple is shipping machines with DVD writers, and OS X doesn't even support reading them. The answer to the argument goes like this: Apple isn’t shipping a machine with a DVD writer and OS X installed on March 24th. I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that Apple probably won’t ship you a DVD-capable machine with OS X until it has that support in place. I understand that this may sound crazy, but humor me for a minute here. If you have a DVD-capable Mac, and watching DVDs on your 15- to 20-inch monitor is the most important thing you do with your computer, don't install Mac OS X until it supports DVD, or expect to have to boot into OS 9 for a while.

How long will you have to wait? Well, no one knows for sure, but if anyone at Apple has more than three brain cells, you know it won’t be long. If you have had a chance to use the public beta, you may have noticed a few of those key features that are there, by far the most engaging of which is memory protection. I dread booting back into Mac OS 9.x to print or do any of the things I can't do in the public beta. I know that when I do, something will crash, probably sooner than later – and unlike OS X, when Explorer crashes, I’ll be rebooting my whole system, not just happily relaunching Explorer. Memory protection may be late to the Mac OS, but what a difference it makes. OS X will be by far the biggest advance the Macintosh has had.

The second problem with OS X is much easier to deal with. So Mac OS X will ship with some bugs. Before I hand over a gem of wisdom regarding operating systems and bugs, I want to tell all the people who stopped upgrading when they received their bug-free, stable OS release to also stop reading here, as this might bore you. If you’re about to argue with me about Unix or Linux, come back when my sister can install and use them. If you think that we are technologically advanced enough at this point to create something better, come back when you’ve contributed to such an OS, and not just a dogmatic criticism of what exists. If you’re still reading, there’s no reason for me to impart my wisdom – you already know what I would say.

Berate your friends for their shortcomings rather than their potential, and your Mac will be your only friend. That doesn’t mean that criticism doesn’t have its place; but if you go back in time far enough, you might see the term "constructive criticism." I hear it used to work pretty well.

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