Mac OS 8 has arrived

Apple is unveiling its most significant upgrade to the Macintosh operating system in several years--but it's not a slam dunk.

4 min read
Apple Computer (AAPL) today is unveiling its most significant upgrade to the Macintosh operating system in several years and will attempt to put the best spin possible on the new software against a backdrop of internal upheaval at the company.

Significantly, Apple is delivering the Macintosh operating system (OS) 8 on time--no small feat in the computer industry.

Apple employees celebrate the release of Mac OS 8. Front, left to right: Peter Lowe, Mac OS 8 product manager; Avie Tevanian, VP, software engineering; Guerrino De Luca, VP, marketing.

The Mac OS 8 upgrade will sell for a suggested retail price of $99 and will offer an updated user interface, improved performance, and new features that make file organization easier. Tuesday's unveiling is also expected to mark the beginning of a marketing blitz designed to get people into stores to buy the software.

The simple fact that it's new and different may provide much of the attraction. "Sometimes people overlook the fact that when you've worked with something for so long, [an upgrade is] like repainting your office. People want something fresh," says Chris LeTocq, an analyst with market research firm Dataquest. Aside from the updated look Mac OS 8 will give, "It's workmanlike, more reliable, and the Internet is easier to work with. If I were a heavy-duty Mac user, I'd certainly use it," LeTocq says.

Nevertheless, the upgrade still lacks some important features. These include memory protection, which keeps the system from crashing when one application goes down, and "preemptive multitasking," which increases performance by dividing processor time between applications more equally. These features will be contained in Rhapsody, Apple's next-generation OS, due next year.

Also, Apple needs to do much more on the marketing front, according to one analyst.

"Mac OS 8 is not the real story...This is not a technology problem. The product itself is not the issue. It's a sales and marketing problem. It's a brand mismanagement problem. The brand is being so underutilized at this stage," says Keith Bosse, a financial analyst with Robert Cohen & Company.

But Apple is hoping to address some concerns about its marketing efforts. Apple is expected to run an aggressive advertising and promotional campaign that will tout the advantages of the new Mac OS in a fashion somewhat reminiscent of Microsoft's rollout of the Windows 95 operating system.

To kick off the campaign, Apple will be sending trucks to major cities to conduct product demonstration events and is expected to be hosting in-store giveaways. Apple is also producing CD-ROM demonstrations for mailing with magazines such as Macworld and is blanketing the press with informational pamphlets about the upcoming release.

The campaign should help get consumers focused on buying the most current release of the OS instead of waiting for next year's expected release of Rhapsody.

Indeed, early promotional efforts may be paying off already. The producers of the upcoming Macworld Expo, a large Macintosh-only trade show, conducted a survey and found that exhibitors cited Mac OS 8 as one of the most anticipated new products at the event.

"We are really optimistic that Mac OS 8 is going to get a lot of people to upgrade," said Peter Lowe, Apple product manager for Mac OS 8.

Retailers are also looking forward to a lift from the new Macintosh OS.

"With Mac OS 8 we expect to see a big surge in sales. It looks to be a very major upgrade in terms of functionality,? said Mike McNeill, president of Pacific Business Systems. His company runs ClubMac, a large catalog-based sales operation in Irvine, California.

Mac OS 8 is an important release to clone vendors as well, though matters are less clear on this front. While Apple is expected to ship the new operating system to retail customers on time, none of the Mac clone vendors have yet indicated that they have signed agreements to license the new software.

Sources at the various clone vendors report that they are in the midst of drawing up agreements and are expected to resolve the licensing question soon, but any last-minute changes could hold up delivery of systems that have Mac OS 8 pre-installed.

Mac OS 8 is a critical component of the Common Hardware Reference Platform (or CHRP--it's also called the PowerPC Reference Platform) specification for Macintosh hardware. The new OS and CHRP-compliant hardware are key technologies that will allow Mac clone vendors to enhance system performance and introduce new products more rapidly.

Among the most noticeable features, the new system's user interface will help reduce screen clutter when many applications and files are being displayed at once. Folders appear as graphical file folder tabs at the bottom of a computer screen and pop back into view with one click, and dragging files over a folder causes the folder to automatically open.

Apple is also attempting to integrate Internet connectivity into the OS in a move to enhance productivity. The upgraded OS has a feature called Personal Web Sharing that enables any Macintosh to become a mini-Web server, so that it can display Web pages to a small network, for example.

Apple has also bundled "push" software from Pointcast and Marimba that distributes, or pushes, information and software automatically to computers. The OS also includes a new feature that allows users to connect to the Internet right from the main desktop menu interface.

Changes in the appearance of the Mac desktop will be the most visible, but unseen changes will offer improved performance. Apple says that more of the system software is being written specifically for the PowerPC processor, to increase the speed of functions such as copying files, for instance. Apple says it has also worked to increase the stability of the system software so that programs don't quit unexpectedly and force a user to restart.

Though the official announcement is today, Apple is expected to actually begin shipping Mac OS 8 on July 26, as reported in June by CNET's NEWS.COM.

Reuters contributed to this report.