Goodbye, poor Mac, I knew you well

Just as Apple releases its most significant operating system upgrade ever, Mac OS X (that's a 10, not an x), I'm finally accepting that my user relationship with the company is coming to an end.

Just as Apple releases its most significant operating system upgrade ever, Mac OS X (that's a 10, not an x), I'm finally accepting that my user relationship with the company is coming to an end.

When I first entered the Computerworld newsroom a dozen years ago, the only computers in sight were Macs. Since that was my first hands-on experience of computing, for quite a while I was blissfully unaware of the existence of any other kind.

In that first flush of excitement, I went out and spent $5000 on a souped-up (it had double the standard amount of RAM -- 4MB -- and a hard drive) Mac Plus for home. Believe it or not, it made an adequate job of page layout and even entertained the kids (Shufflepuck -- ping pong with a gallery of weird characters -- was their favourite).

Four or five years ago I went and did it again: splashed out about $4000 on a PCI-based PowerPC 7200. That gave me colour, a massive 500MB hard drive and an excessive 48MB or RAM. The internet was the exciting application of the day and the Powermac did a pretty good job of surfing at dial-up speed. Duke Nukem had become the game of choice, and the Mac seemed to satisfy the kids' thirst for blood and guts.

But after just spending a weekend trying to nurse the computer back to life (I suspect a hand-me-down 4GB hard drive installed a week or so ago is at fault), I accept that the 7200 is the end of the line for me and Macs. I say so with regret because 30 minutes playing around with Apple's new OS on a latest-generation iMac (decorated in flower power colours) last week was a real pleasure. It was quick, easy to navigate and had nifty 2D graphics effects when opening and closing windows.

Did I mention Windows? Interestingly, the new interface, which Apple calls Aqua, does a good job of mimicking some Windows features. For example, the Finder has a new Columns view which looks remarkably like Windows Explorer. And the bottom of the screen has a row of icons for accessing applications and documents in much the same way as the Windows task bar.

Let's not be churlish, though. After all, what Apple has done is take Unix and stick an interface on it that makes it acceptable for non-technical users, giving them the benefit of memory protection and pre-emptive multitasking, while maintaining some level of backward compatibility. But at a cost. The OS itself is $300 and users will have to upgrade their apps to "carbonised" versions (Apple's term for native OS X software) to get the benefits of the new operating system. A visit to Apple's website shows a list of developers with OS X products or plans; Adobe's name didn't feature on it when I looked.

But I said I wasn't going to be churlish. My half-hour's play convinced me that the Apple option really is very appealing. It's appealing to a dwindling proportion of computer buyers, however. The latest figures from market researcher IDC give Apple just 4.2% of the New Zealand desktop market, far removed from its double-digit heyday.

And as I decide what new computer to buy for home, Apple's out of the running. If all I wanted was a straightforward PC for desktop publishing, word processing and internet access, then it might have been in with a chance. But I need my home PC to cohabit with the system at work, and the sad fact is that Computerworld publisher IDG has turned its back on Macs. Not to mention the fact that the kids are demanding to play more of those (un)-PC games.

Doesburg is Computerworld's editor. Send email to Anthony Doesburg. Send letters for publication to Computerworld Letters.

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