Mac OS X Beta Arrives

It’s out of the box but not quite on the shelves.

Apple Computer chief Steve Jobs unveiled today the much-delayed public test version of Apple’s highly anticipated next-generation operating system, known as Mac OS X.

Wowing the audience of loyal Mac fans gathered at the Paris Apple Expo with a sleek, multimedia display of the system’s slick yet quirky features, Jobs, Apple’s co-founder and chief executive, said the Beta version was now ready for the public to test.

“Mac OS X is the future of Macintosh. We’ve had this on our hands for a long time — from today we are going to let you hold it in yours,” Jobs announced, to cheers and whoops.

With the final OS X system not due until “early 2001,” according to Apple, there are very few programs available right now that use the power of X. And while the new OS is expected to rekindle interest in writing software for the Mac, in the meantime users testing the public beta version will have to be content with old programs. (They will run on the new system; they just won’t take advantage of X’s new features yet.)

The Mac OS has traditionally included its famous look (the shape of windows, the size of icons, how menus pop down from the top of the screen) as it controls all the basic functions of a computer — from managing applications and memory to interacting with peripherals such as disk drives, printers, and other computers.

OS X (Apple says to pronounce it as “Oh Ess Ten”) will change all that.

New and Improved and Different

In the preview releases, buttons on screen have been transformed from dull gray to round, jeweled colors. Menus are now elegantly translucent. A “dock” at the bottom of the screen functions a lot like the bottom of a Windows screen, allowing users to reduce applications to icons so they can run quietly in the background. There’s also a music player and a minimizing device which stretches and shrinks images so they appear to be poured into little screen icons.

Its portable document format (PDF) system lets users manipulate images, overlapping and spinning them. Colors can be faded in real time, even on images wrapped around a moving three-dimensional image — tasks that are very data intensive.

OS X also features a new interface called Aqua, a version of Microsoft Corp’s Internet Explorer, and the ability for users to switch between English, French and German.

Peeking Inside

Under the hood, the changes are even more dramatic. When the core of the current Macintosh operating system was first laid down, Ronald Reagan was running for a second term, Culture Club was still spinning hits, Microsoft’s DOS operating system relied on cryptic text commands, and nobody had heard of Windows.

The new Mac operating system has been rewritten from scratch from the UNIX-based foundation named Darwin, an open-source kernel that, like Linux, allows advanced user input.

“We’ve put out there in the OS community so we can get feedback from the developing community,” said Apple’s Peter Lowe, director of Mac technology.

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