Apple's OS 9 overstays its welcome

The almost universal praise showered upon AppleComputer Inc.'s new music service has obscured a rather daunting reality: the majority of Macintosh users cannot access it!

Most of the reviews dutifully noted that the iTunes Music Store is for the time being Mac only, and thus restricted to Apple's approximately 3 percent of the computing market.


Few bothered to point out, however, that because the iTunes Store requires Mac OS X, only those who have moved on from Mac OS 9 to OS X -- about one in four Mac users by Apple's most recent estimate in January -- can use the service.

In January Apple CEO Steve Jobs said that with 5 million of an estimated 20 million or so Mac users running OS X, "we can now say that the Mac OS X transition is nearly complete."


Ken Bereskin, Apple's director of Mac OS X marketing, said its adoption rate "compares favorably with any OS release" -- including versions of

Microsoft Corp.

's Windows as well as previous Mac operating systems.

But since neither company releases hard data on adoption rates, there's no way to confirm or refute Apple's claim.


Apple has said all along that the conversion is on schedule, but it would seem that having 75 percent of Mac users still on Mac OS 9 -- or earlier versions, for that matter -- is far from a transition in its final stages.

Considering that OS X's official release was more than two years ago and that converting its user base to the new system has been an Apple priority, one might wonder what's behind the delay.

Apple itself clearly has completed the transition: Such new services as the Music Store, as well as the newer "iApps" like iPhoto and iCal, are available only for Mac OS X.

In fact, Apple's "OS X only" policy is a part of its carrot-and-stick approach to encouraging the Mac masses to leave OS 9 behind.

The carrots, including cool new software and services, grow juicier while the sticks -- Macs that will boot only into X, no more major upgrades to OS 9 -- grow more vexing.

Apple also has done a good job of moving developers onto the new OS. More than 5,000 applications are available for Mac OS X, with many developers following Apple's lead in releasing OS X-only versions of their latest software.

Many of the Mac users that have switched to OS X are the "early adopters" and "power users" who can't live without the latest and greatest Apple offerings. And anyone who has purchased a Mac in the past year had OS X installed as the default system.

What are the other 75 percent waiting for? Well, there are several things.

  • Some people own Macs incapable of running OS X, which require at least a Beige G3 (circa 1998) or original iMac. Since Mac users tend to keep their computers, on average, about a year or two longer than PC users, quite a few of these older Macs still are in use.

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  • Other OS 9 holdouts own machines capable of running OS X, but haven't upgraded because they're comfortable with what they have and are concerned they'd have difficulty learning the new system.

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  • For those with significant investments in software or older peripheral devices such as scanners, the reluctance to switch is economic.

    Although most OS 9 software will run in OS X's "Classic" mode, users of OS X have found it far preferable to use software native to OS X. Upgrading your programs can easily run into the hundreds of dollars, depending on their number and sophistication (professional applications such as Microsoft Office can cost hundreds of dollars alone).

    Many older peripherals, particularly scanners, simply won't work in OS X, which means either booting into OS 9 every time you want to use them or shelling out more money to replace them with OS X-compatible models.

    A few have tried OS X and rejected it as "unMac-like." After Macworld magazine devoted its February cover story to fixing OS X problems, several readers in the May issue reacted negatively.

    One reader wrote that the issue "convinced me not to switch to OS X. It appears that Apple has lost its vision -- what happened to ease of use?"

    Some Mac observers have spoken out against OS X, most notably John Gruber on his Daring Fireball Web site (it advertises itself as "Mac punditry and curmudgeonry").

    Gruber has written several articles ripping the Mac OS X Finder as lacking the same logic and usability as the OS 9 version.

    "The biggest single obstacle for OS X migration is that Mac OS X is quite a bit slower than Mac OS 9," said Gruber, "especially in terms of how it 'feels.' Pulling down menus, resizing windows, that sort of thing."

    Bruce Tognazzini, who founded Apple's renowned Human Interface Group (which developed many of the Mac's ease-of-use features), said he takes "a heavy production hit" running OS X compared to OS 9.

    Tognazzini did admit that OS X is excellent for new users, however.

    "Apple is concentrating on applications that fill the wants and needs of new and younger users," Tognazzini said. "It would appear that is Apple's future."

    Tognazzini said his preference for OS 9 will continue until "Apple puts the science back into the interface and improves the user-productivity of the machine."

    No doubt dissatisfaction with the way OS X works versus OS 9 is keeping some long-time Mac users on the old system, but the bulk of OS 9 users probably are sticking with it for a far more basic reason.

    Most average consumer-type computer users, whether they use a Windows PC or a Mac, strenuously avoid making major changes to their machines. It's the classic "if ain't broke, don't fix it" philosophy.

    In other words, the reason so many Mac users haven't adopted OS X yet is plain old inertia.

    These people also aren't rabid followers of the major developments in the Mac universe. Crazy as it may seem to those who visit Mac Web sites every week, millions of Mac users generally are unaware of such things as iPhoto or the latest Mac models (except for the commercials they see on television).

    This group of Mac users will only upgrade to OS X when they buy a new Mac to replace or augment their old one. While there's nothing wrong with that -- in fact, it's arguably the best strategy for the non-technically minded -- it does mean a slower rate of OS X adoption than Apple probably would like.

    Though eventually the purchase of new Macs will complete the transition, Gruber noted that "Apple had the misfortune of debuting a major new operating system at the same time the world's economy went into recession."

    To convince the "next wave" of Mac users to move to OS X, Bereskin said, Apple needs to spread the message that the new system provides "remarkable solutions that people never imagined their computer capable of," namely such things as digital photography and the new iTunes Music Store.

    Apple's means for getting this message out are its Web site -- the company recently redesigned its "Upgrade to Jaguar" page that gives reasons why OS 9 users should upgrade and tutorials on how to do it as painlessly as possible -- and its retail stores, where users can see OS X for themselves.

    The best sign for Apple is that, according to Mac consultants, those who have made the transition seem satisfied.

    "I have not had a client who has rejected OS X after trying it," said Rob Coben, a Mac consultant in Brick, N.J., who specializes in helping residential customers. "In fact, a large part of my business since OS X 10.2 was released has been doing upgrades to OS X."

    Clayton Lewis, a Mac consultant based in Severn, Md., said he's had only one client actually reject OS X. "Once folks have a chance to explore and get used to the interface they realize how much better X is than OS 9."

    So while a majority of Mac users may not yet be on OS X, they're on the road that will take them there -- whether they realize it or not.

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