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.

OS X walls off programs from each other, so when one crashes, users don’t have to reboot the computer. This technical feature, known as protected memory, allows the computer user to do more than one task at a time without crashing the machine. [Windows NT does this, but not Windows Millennium Edition.] OS X also provides a much more efficient way of running several programs at once, bringing the Mac up to standards enjoyed by partisans of the Linux operating system.

“Crashes should be, in theory, a thing of the past,” said John Norstad, a computer administrator at Northwestern University who has programmed the Mac for more than a decade.

The software is based around technology Apple acquired from Next Computer, the company Jobs founded after being forced out of Apple in the 1980s that Apple then acquired during Jobs’ triumphal return to power three years ago.

“We’ve gone through the operating system and looked at everything and asked how can we simplify this and make it more powerful at the same time,” Jobs said.

Gasps and Even Some Boos

Jobs, dressed down in faded jeans and a polo neck sweater — in typical fashion — also previewed iMovie2, the improved film editing software for home video and music use. He also showed off Apple’s now standard optical mouse and the new assortment of colors for the iBook laptops — indigo, a more refined graphite and keylime, an“electric, more high-impact” hue, according to Greg Joswick, Apple’s director of portables product marketing.

The audience gasped at Jobs’ video game demonstration that showed the speed of Apple’s new dual-processor PowerMac computers which run on two computer chips.

“I think it’s the strongest product line that Apple has ever had,” boasted Jobs, who co-founded the company in 1976.

The Office 2001 demo, which showed off new business software due later this year and developed by Microsoft, elicited a round of boos — a reaction by ardent Apple fans that points to the “Catch-22” of the company’s software availability dilemma.

While Microsoft is sometimes vilified by Apple loyalists, the two companies have enjoyed close ties over the years, with Microsoft providing many of the key applications that run on Apple computers. In 1997, Microsoft also injected much-needed capital to prop up the then down-on-its-luck Apple.

Jobs played down the hostility, joking, “There’s a whole team at Microsoft that really like Macintoshes and works night and day to make software better for Macintosh than Microsoft.”’s Sascha Segan and Reuters contributed to this report.