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Sources: Soft spots remain in Apple's new OS

The company is planning to soft-pedal the March debut of Mac OS X, buying time to fill gaps in its next-generation OS by the summer.

When Mac OS X is released later this month, sources say early users will find a list of glitches that range from annoying to frustrating that could result in slow sales of the upgrade.

Sources familiar with the first ground-up rewrite of Apple Computer's operating system since the Mac's debut in 1984 said the initial version will not be able to play or write DVDs. Other gaps, such as sleep problems with Mac laptops, also will limit the new OS' usefulness to certain users--although none rise to the level of aggravation that the lack of DVD support is likely to cause.

According to sources, some problems will not be addressed until summer, when a revised version of Mac OS X--code-named Puma--begins shipping preloaded on new Macs. However, it is possible that some will be resolved by the time the initial version ships.

The sources said the company considers the first release an opportunity for early adopters, information technology pros and developers to get a feel for the new OS while awaiting software from third-party companies that is written to take advantage of the new system.

Although it is common for new operating systems to have glitches, such as those that hampered Windows 95 and Mac's OS 7, some analysts were troubled by some of the problems with OS X.

"It's clearly not a positive," said David Bailey, senior analyst at Gerard Klauer Mattison. "We didn't expect huge acceptance of the software initially, not until Mac OS X-native applications are available in the summer--but then, the lack of DVD playback takes away functionality."

An Apple representative declined to comment on any aspect of the development of OS X.

A "modern" OS
The Unix-based Mac OS X is intended to provide "modern OS" features to Mac users, including protected memory, support for symmetrical multiprocessing, and pre-emptive multitasking. Efforts to outfit the Mac with these capabilities stretch back nearly a decade; Apple attempted to create its own next-generation OS with the abortive Copland, then acquired Next Software (developer of the OpenStep OS that forms the basis of Mac OS X) in December 1996.

Chief Executive Steve Jobs has said that the $129 upgrade will not receive Apple's usual splashy product introduction when it is released March 24. According to sources at a late January presentation for Apple staffers, Jobs said the company will soft-pedal the next-generation OS until summer partly because of a lack of applications that will be written to take advantage of the new OS.

"We're going to let them grab it out of our hands," he told the employees, according to sources.

Bailey called the lack of a splashy introduction a missed opportunity for the company, whose stock has been hammered in recent months because of plunging sales and profits.

"The launch of Mac OS X could've been an opportunity for Apple to promote all its other software; that's where the company has an advantage over all other PC makers," he said.

According to several sources, the slow ramp-up also reflects the lack of native applications and the current state of Mac OS X development.

Cheetah's trouble spots
The initial 1.0 release--code-named Cheetah--that will be sold to consumers on March 24 will include most major features, but sources said users are likely to encounter a range of glitches.

Apple's OS development team has deferred many of these nagging issues to the Puma release, scheduled to be installed on the summer's crop of new Mac hardware at July's Macworld Expo in New York.

Topping the list of missing features, Cheetah will lack any support for DVD playback or authoring. To play DVDs or take advantage of the DVD-authoring capabilities of some recently released Mac models, people would have to shut down the PC and reboot using the current OS, 9.1, according to sources.

Ming Lau of Blue Waters, a San Francisco-based video-editing and design studio, said this glitch alone could keep many people from upgrading. Video work, he noted, is a key professional market for Apple.

"We don't often create directly to DVD, but we need to be able to read them without taking the time to reboot," Lau said.

He also was troubled by another gap cited by sources: the lack of support for importing analog video content through third-party devices.

"Digital videotape isn't high enough quality for video professionals--most use Beta," which is transferred into the Mac via the video-in connection, he said. He also expressed doubt that any of the manufacturers of video-capture equipment would be able to deliver updated drivers for their products in a timely fashion.

Fast video on hold
Among the other problems with the March release, sources said, is that it won't take full advantage of multiprocessing systems or new video accelerators, such as Nvidia's recently announced GeForce 3 or ATI's Radeon. People who have systems containing these new graphics cards may not see a speed-up of 3D or 2D graphics until support is introduced with Puma.

Owners of portable Macs also may experience some problems, including power-management issues affecting the OS' ability to awaken and go to sleep. Intermittent bugs affecting the sleep cycle may not be resolved by the time Cheetah reaches the so-called golden master, and the development team has not fully tested its stability on the newest Apple hardware, including the PowerBook G4 Titanium.

The Mac OS X development team also has flagged a variety of bugs, some causing system hangs or freezes, in the Setup Assistant application, which helps people configure their systems. While the glitches "may affect user experience," sources said, the team has deferred fixes to later versions.

Finally, sources noted diminished performance when people run applications that have not been written specifically for OS X. Although some operations, such as opening windows, perform faster in the so-called Classic mode, most applications will run more slowly, sources said.

Ben Long, a media specialist and writer who has covered multiple operating systems, said the missing features in Mac OS X 1.0 surprised him.

"I don't remember another transition leaving out functionality--not in the move to System 7, not in the move to PowerPC," the predecessor to today's G3 and G4 machines, he said.

Though the lack of DVD may be a problem "mostly for portable users" who use their PowerBooks as portable players, Long said the speed hit in Mac OS X's Classic environment would most likely be the most troubling.

"Like most people, I'm not going to be installing Mac OS X until the high-performance applications are Carbonized," he said, referring to the process of tailoring the software to run optimally on the OS.

Long noted that print professionals upgrade entire systems to shave seconds off frequently used operations such as Photoshop filters; an operational slowdown of even 10 percent, he said, would seriously affect productivity.

"Most people who install Mac OS X 1.0 will probably be spending as much, if not more, time booted into Mac OS 9," he said.