Factory incorporation of the updated OS into new computers will begin in February, Apple officials said at the Macworld Expo earlier this month.
The availability of the upgrade in the time frame Apple originally promised is further evidence that the company has improved its track record for delivering revisions to its OS on time: Apple had vowed last year to make the upgrade available by the end of January to customers.
Having canceled an earlier project for a new OS, called Copland, that was to replace the Mac OS, the company has unveiled a number of Copland's technologies in various releases since 1996. The most recent major upgrade to the Mac OS was released, as promised, in July.
Peter Lowe, product line manager for the Mac OS, notes that Apple has changed the process for developing its software products. "First and foremost, it's a renewed philosophy that both schedule and product quality are features. From [Mac OS] 7.5.5 through OS 8.1, we've delivered all of these products on time," Lowe noted.
By mid-1998, Apple has committed to releasing another major revision to the Mac OS, code-named Allegro, as well as the full release of Rhapsody. Rhapsody is Apple's next-generation OS, based on technology acquired from Next Software, which was acquired in 1996 by Apple.
"Allegro will be a significant release. We will focus squarely on performance and on making sure the Mac OS is most efficient OS we can deliver. We will work to extend our leadership in user interface experience and further integrate the Internet [into the OS]," Lowe said.
As previously reported, Mac OS 8.1 includes an improved drive file system called HFS+ that increases the space available for files and support for an industry-wide universal file system called UDF (Universal Disk Format) that is required for reading files from DVD drives. The upgrade also fixes minor bugs and improves Java compatibility.
Apple can now lay claim to being the first major vendor to ship an OS with built-in DVD support. However, while the company is expected to incorporate DVD-ROM drives into most of its Macintosh desktop and notebook lines, such systems have yet to be announced. DVD-ROMs can store up to 4.7GB of multimedia data, while CD-ROMs can hold a maximum of around 650MB.
Apple officials say a number of performance enhancements have been made, including the ability to launch applications more quickly. "In some applications, we've seen as high as 50 percent reductions in time needed to launch," said Lowe. Lowe also claimed files and data will move faster across a network.
Mac OS 8.1 now incorporates Apple's latest Java virtual machine, called MRJ 2.0, for better Java performance. The new JVM enables users to run Java applications and mini-programs called "applets" using a Web browser or Apple's Applet Runner software.
The upgrade will be free to current Mac OS 8.0 customers, via Apple's Web site; a CD installation disk is expected to be available in February for $19.95 along with the full retail version of the Mac OS software.