Apple peels open Mac OS X beta

Today's formal release is a watershed event for the company, but developers who want OS X will need $29.95 and a generous helping of memory.

5 min read
Apple today released the long-awaited public beta, or test version, of its upcoming Mac OS X operating system. Unfortunately, a significant number of Apple users won't be able to use it without upgrading their hardware.

In a surprise twist in the Mac OS X saga, Apple said today that the beta version of the operating system will require a minimum of 128MB of memory. The basic configuration for most Apple laptops and desktops, however, is 64MB.

CEO Steve Jobs unfurled the beta today during a keynote address at Apple Expo 2000 in Paris. It sells on a CD-ROM that can be ordered for $29.95 from Apple's Web site and is also available as a special bundle on two new computers.

Although the memory requirements were a surprise, the company maintains that it should not be a problem for the target audience of the beta. Apple said it's intended for die-hard fans and technology professionals, most of whom already have the needed memory.

"The goal of the public beta is not to have every Mac user go out and install it," said Peter Lowe, director of Mac OS product marketing.

As recently as May, Apple had said OS X would require only 64MB of memory, a far more typical configuration on its iMacs, iBooks and even the entry level of its PowerMac and PowerBook professional lines.

The final version, the one that is intended for all Macintosh users, is still set for early next year.

Apple will work to make the final version run with 64MB of memory and on the original PowerBook, Lowe said.

"That is our plan," he said. "That is our goal."

Lowe said that although the earlier releases of OS X offered to developers work with 64MB of memory, people running existing Mac applications might not get sufficient performance without the higher amount of memory.

"We recommend 128MB for people to have a positive experience," Lowe said.

The idea of a public beta was first outlined in May at Apple's Worldwide Developer Forum. Before then, Apple had said it would offer OS X as a commercial release this summer.

Apple has maintained that the revised timetable was simply a change in terminology, rather than a delay. However, Apple made it clear today that the public beta is designed to get more feedback before releasing the final version for the masses.

Release of the beta is considered a watershed event for Apple. Analysts see the move to Mac OS X as the company's most important product transition since the move to PowerPC processors in the early 1990s.

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Jobs demos the OS X at Seybold
"For Apple, this is the equivalent of going to the PowerPC," Gartner analyst Chris LeTocq said. "It's that type of migration, serious decision, architecture change. This gets them out of the 1984 architecture they've been in for so long."

Availability of the beta could also be crucial to drumming up support from software developers, who have not embraced Mac OS X as enthusiastically as Apple had hoped.

"A lot of people will be happy to see Mac OS X," said Technology Business Research analyst Tim Deal. "The big question is what kind of developers are going to be developing for the OS. I remember just three months ago they only had about 200 application developers for OS X."

Besides offering the beta on CD, Apple is also selling it preloaded on two systems: a PowerMac G4 and G4 Cube for $4,198 and $3,298, respectively. Both systems also include a 15-inch flat-panel display.

Apple's charging for the beta was a hot topic among Apple enthusiasts leading up to the Paris Expo, but the move is by no means unprecedented. Microsoft has charged for Windows public betas.

Delays getting Mac OS X to market may ultimately benefit Apple, say analysts. With modest support from software developers and major changes in the new operating system's graphical user interface (GUI), the beta could be crucial to an effective transition to OS X.

A brief history of the Macintosh's "next-generation" operating systems
Mac OS X
• Open-source core (Darwin)
• Aqua user interface
• Migration path from prior OS interfaces
• Pre-emptive multitasking and protected memory
• New 2D (Quartz) and 3D (OpenGL) graphics

Announced: May 1998
First target ship date: Fall 1999
Current ship date: Public beta, Sept. 13, 2000; final commercial version, January 2001

• Unix Core
• Pre-emptive multitasking and protected memory

Announced: January 1997
First target ship date: Mid-1998
Shipped: As OS X Server, in January 1999

• Object-oriented operating system
• Microkernel architecture

Announced: Worldwide Developers Conference, May 1995
First target ship date: mid-1996
Canceled: 1996

-- Ian Fried

"Major new operating systems have a documented history of substantially missing their releases," Gartner's LeTocq said. "Windows 2000 is a very credible example of that. From an Apple perspective, is it a calamity there is a delay? I don't think so."

LeTocq warned that Mac OS X's fluidlike Aqua GUI may shock some Apple enthusiasts who will need time to adjust to the radical departure from Mac OS 9.04.

Mac OS X is a revolutionary step forward in Macintosh operating systems, according to analyst Deal. Apple borrowed elements from Unix that bring Mac OS X's performance up to par with other business-class operating systems, such as Windows 2000 Professional.

The move to a more modern operating system is essential for Apple, LeTocq said.

"You have an architecture in the current Mac OS that is ineffective at handling large storage media, tens-of-gigabytes hard drives," he said. "It is particularly ineffective when it comes to memory management."

The Gartner analyst faulted Mac OS 9.04's hierarchical file system, which cannot relate disparate data logically--that is, he said, it cannot comprehend "what are the files associated with my work and my Christmas project. When you look at OS X, for the most part it has the architecture to do those things, and that's what Apple wants."

More important for Apple will be translating enthusiasm for the beta into greater developer support for Mac OS X. Developers took the May announcement of the operating system's delay in stride, Deal said.

The beta "will attract some new developers, especially if there is some enthusiasm from the Mac community," he added.

Apple has its share of big-gun developer support. Microsoft has committed to Mac OS X versions of Internet Explorer 5 and Outlook Express 5.02, though it has not yet set a date for a Mac OS X version of Office. The next version of Office, for Mac OS 9.04, will not become available until next month.

Casady & Greene will be offering a Mac OS X version of its popular SoundJam MP player for listening to digital music, such as MP3 files. Adobe, Disney, IBM, Macromedia and Quark are among the other software developers committed to Mac OS X products.

Whatever else Apple gets from the release of the public beta, the most important thing will be buzz, LeTocq said.

"Frankly, it is a PR exercise," he said. "They get it out there and generate some buzz. Pump some more energy into the cycle, so the buzz comes round and persuades the developers to get off their butts."