What is the Mac OS?

written by: Mike S.

It seems as if every Mac user on the Internet has an opinion about Mac OS X. What has been bothering me though is that too many of those opinions are negative in regard to it's stunning new user interface dubbed Aqua. The negativity isn't about what's new, rather, it's about what isn't old.

Let me clarify. People are complaining that things like the Apple Menu, the Control Strip, pop-up folders, etc.. are M.I.A.. I've heard people so upset about losing these items that they've said they'll go to Windows rather than OS X. I've tried my best to calm these people with rational observations about why feature z isn't needed anymore but some people just don't want to listen.

This puzzling behavior made me wonder just what it is about the Mac OS that would cause such seemingly irrational reactions. On the surface, one might think it's the old user interface, the Apple Menu, the Control Strip and pop-up folders but after some thought I've ruled those out. Why? That's a fair question.

If the Mac OS's driving force were an Apple Menu and some desktop accessories than there would be no Mac users around today. The Start Menu in Windows exceeded the functionality on the Apple Menu a long time ago, thus it's better. The control strip's major functions can be easily turned into items placeable into the Windows system tray, thus it's equal . Pop-up folders are new to the Mac and don't have a Windows equivalent but I honestly can't believe this is the key to the Macs success for the Mac has been without them much longer than it has been with them. Why use a Mac when it's most sought after features are done better elsewhere and costs less to boot? To drive this point home, I've heard the comment "Windows 9x is more Mac like than Mac OS X" from some beta users. If the Mac was nothing more than a user interface than it would seem Mac OS X was doomed. Fortunately, I do not believe this is the case at all.

Here's an example. Let's say you were involved in a terrible accident, your face requires extensive surgery, many vital organs, including your heart, are damaged and in need of a transplant (suspend your disbelief for this example). Through the wonders of modern medicine and much rehab you're back on your feet in a few years. You're healthier than you have ever been but when you look in a mirror you see what appears to be a different person staring back. Do you still believe you are yourself or are you now a different person? I'd believe I'm still the same because what makes me who I am is my personality, the way I think and act and the way I feel. If you were a religious person you may say your soul make you who you are not your body.

In that example we see that appearance doesn't make a person who they are. Similarly, the Mac OS doesn't have millions of loyal users because of superficial items like an Apple Menu. Since Windows is so much like a Mac, and in many respects better, than Mac users should be happy to use it. Instead, Mac users spit at the very mention of Windows and give it odd nicknames like Windoze. Nope, Windows 9x merely looks more like Mac OS than Mac OS X. On a similar note, some PC makers try awfully hard to make a computer that looks like an iMac but in the end isn't an iMac and will never have the success of the iMac.

You now see that appearance has nothing to do with the Mac OS' appeal, it just makes it familiar. Now, how about the guts? Is the Mac OS "insanely great" because of what's under the UI? Please give me a moment to stop laughing. No, it certainly isn't what's under the hood, in fact, what's under the hood is what has kept the Mac locked into niches and out of consideration in larger, more profitable markets or places where it can really change the world.

Perhaps it's a combination of the two? The UI and the OS. That is a help and Mac OS X will be greatest combo in history. For now though, Windows is extremely close to the Mac OS UI in form and function and it's core OS is much better than the Mac OS'. If this were the Mac's appeal then Mac users should rationally want to use Windows instead for it's a much better combination of UI and power.

What's left? I've tossed out the UI and the technology as well as some merger of the two. It seemed to be a question without an answer until I had an epiphany while I was working on my computer a few nights ago, It was all so clear. Have I unlocked the mystery of the Mac? Let me share it with you so that you may decide for yourself.

I believe the answer to the question has been known all along by Mac users only the fear of Mac OS X's momentous change has blinded them to it. I believe it was the late Don Crabb that said it best, "It just works."

Think about it. How did the Mac change the world? Hint: It wasn't really the GUI. The GUI was a means to an end, the Macintosh was doing quite poorly until it found a purpose. That purpose? An easier way to publish. The combination of a radical new interface, Adobe software and a laser printer propelled the Mac to greatness. One could publish before the Mac but the Mac brought publishing down to a level where anyone could participate. It was indeed a revolution. Years passed by and, like everything in the computer industry, the Mac was copied. Soon, any computer could do publishing.

The Mac always did it best, however, simply because things such as color calibration, printing etc.. just worked. Follow this philosophy down to the user level and we still see the Mac just works. Download a compressed file from the Internet and the Mac OS will simply decompress the file for you once it's finished downloading. Do this on Windows and you'll have to find the file and double click it to decompress, assuming your Windows machine came with a program to decompress it to begin with.

I remember when I first got my Mac after being a long time Windows user, the smallest things impressed me. I wanted to change an icon. On the Mac, I'd simply copy/paste into a get info window. I wanted to put a graphic file into Appleworks. I dragged and dropped the picture into the program's window and it automatically converted the file into one Appleworks (then Claris Works) could use. I tried this on Windows just to see what would happen and MS Works said "This is not a Windows bitmap file" How about the infamous line: "Plug and Play not Plug and Pray"? All examples of what makes a Mac great. It just works.

What caused me to realize this was something that may seem mundane to many. I wanted to take a picture someone sent me and make it available for other people to see online. To accomplish this I used Apple's iTools. If you're a Mac OS 9 user and don't have iTools I highly recommend you sign up, it's free and there's really no reason not to try it out.

I had stuck an image on my iDisk earlier but thought to myself, it's too big for modem users, so I logged in to iTools using my web browser and was able to view and edit my public folder page, which iTools can create for anyone in about 3 mouse clicks. I clicked the mount iDisk button on the web page and after a little wait the iDisk appeared on my Mac desktop. I then dragged the large file to my trash can and was asked if I wanted to delete it since it can't be undone. I clicked OK and it was gone.

I then dragged the original image onto the icon for Graphic Converter (Mac only shareware) and was able to save it as a smaller jpeg file. I of course wanted this back in my public page. I noticed that the iDisk appears in navigation services (modern open/save dialogs) and I was able to save this new jpeg directly into the public iDisk folder, bypassing my HD all together. This is just what I did.

Back in my web browser I click the refresh contents button and as I expected the old file was gone and the new one was in it's place complete with a preview picture. I press the publish button and my page was then viewable by everyone.

This to me is what the Mac is all about. In the simple process of saving a file it was published to the Internet complete with a preview. Some of you may be going, "So what?". I think it's significant. I've taken web pages from raw HTML to publish before and it's a pain in the rear even with a WYSIWYG editor. You have to create the thing, preview it in a browser to make sure everything looks right then use an FTP client to upload everything and manage files. If you want preview images you have to create them separately. All of this work just to share something, be it ideas, pictures or movies. While it's by no means so difficult that an average user couldn't do it the long way; the point is simply that with a Mac they wouldn't have to.

The Mac OS takes something complex and makes it seamless. Apple did this again with iMovie. Video editing was once the realm of Hollywood studios or people with expensive mixing equipment. Now, anyone with a camcorder and a Mac can do this stuff in their home without even having to read a manual. In typical computer industry fashion there are iMovie imitations but, like desktop publishing, none of them just work like an Apple Macintosh computer.

I've been unable to use the Mac OS X Beta myself but I can tell you that everything I've seen tells me that Apple's continuing the grand tradition of the Mac. Applications no longer need installing/uninstalling, you simply drag and drop. In today's highly networked world connecting to a computer thousands of miles away is as familiar as navigating your local hard drive. New hardware should just be detected and if a driver is unavailable the OS should seek it out online.

I really think the Mac user has simply forgotten what has kept them using the Mac because they see a new face staring back at them from the monitor. The Mac OS is getting a wonderful UI overhaul and new core OS. When it's done it will be stronger and more beautiful than ever.

What won't change from Mac OS to Mac OS X is the fact that it just works and that's really what we love about our Macs and what has kept us from using something else, isn't it?


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