Suddenly, the impressive chords of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor emanated from the speakers spread around the hall. A black coffin appeared on stage. Then Steve Jobs, Apple's boss, appeared and began reading a eulogy for the venerable classic Mac OS.
For those who didn't catch the unsubtle hints, Jobs then underlined the point by informing the assembled developers that while the classic Mac OS wasn't dead for Apple's customers, it was for Apple. He stated that because of the limits of the classic Mac OS it just wasn't possible to continue adding the types of features that would continue to attract new customers to the platform, so all of Apple's future development effort is now exclusively focused on Mac OS X.
The fact is, though, that while Apple desperately wants the classic Mac OS to be dead and developers to focus all of their effort on the new platform, wishing doesn't make it so. It has been estimated that of the installed base of Mac users, often put at around 25 million to 30 million users, fewer than a million of those currently use Mac OS X as their primary operating system. Some just don't have the hardware to run it, some just can't see the point in upgrading when what they have already works for them, and some, like me, love the advantages and opportunities that Mac OS X offers but are frustrated by the incomplete and somewhat slow interface in comparison to the highly polished classic Mac OS.
Still, it is early days for Mac OS X. Talked about extensively during Job's keynote, and due for release in the latter part of the northern hemisphere summer, was the next major version, codenamed Jaguar, which aims to address these concerns.
If previous releases were all about building strong foundations, then this one's about speed. When Apple first showed the Mac OS X Finder to developers in 2000, it claimed it had used its own development tools so it could be seen to be “eating its own dog food”. This decision, unfortunately, produced a Finder that barked like a dog and hobbled the entire user experience with the annoyingly frequent “spinning beachball of death” whenever you did something relatively straight forward like attempting to scroll through a directory of a couple of thousand files. The new release, however, has been rewritten to be extensively multithreaded, resulting in what Apple calls “superior performance” and what everybody else calls “usable”. Even the icon for the busy cursor has been upgraded.
The Finder is not the limit of the improvements to the speed of the OS. Apart from the usual code optimisations, Apple now uses version 3 of the GCC compiler. This is one of those behind-the-scenes changes that can really make a major difference. Early reports say that the improved code produced by this tool can result in overall performance gains of 10% to 20%.
While there are many other improvements, there are two that are stand-outs for those with a mixed environment: the addition of a client for Windows virtual private networks and the ability to browse Windows servers directly in the Finder. These two features alone make Mac OS X and Apple hardware far more viable in the corporate environment.
Even though developers were technically covered by non-disclosure agreements, reports on the “pre-alpha” preview release seeded to developers surfaced on the web quickly after the conference closed. If they are accurate, then this user, for one, will be making the switch and not looking back.