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Mac OS 8: Short of a Revolution but Still a Step Forward

- 2012.07.26 - Tip Jar

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This article was first published on August 5, 1997, shortly after Mac OS 8 was released. The strongest memory I have of attending the Mac OS 8 event was sitting there, as someone who had both a Windows 95 PC and a Motorola StarMax Mac-clone (running OS 7.5.3 or OS 7.6 I think), and feeling - over and over - that OS 8 was playing catch up with Windows 95. The article mentions context menus, but that wasn't all - improvements to desktop wallpaper, easier Internet access, and more all felt like Apple's response to the success of Windows 95.

While Windows 95 was widely viewed as making PC's "more Mac-like", in copying Apple, Microsoft also pushed the GUI-envelope. At Apple's 2006 WWDC keynote, banners festooned the hall famously reading "Redmond, start your photocopiers." And certainly, Microsoft has never restrained itself from copying features introduced by others - right-click/contextual menus first appeared in Windows applications developed by Lotus; Microsoft made the feature system-wide in Windows 95. And lots and lots of Windows features appeared first on the Mac.

But that long-ago OS 8 launch event reminded me that Apple, too, can copy features - in some cases from third-party developers, but even from arch-rival Microsoft.

Apple's New OS 8 System Falls Short of Revolution but Is Still a Step Forward for Clan Macintosh

Aug 5, 1997

Despite the chaos and uncertainty at Apple caused by the surprise departure of CEO Gil Amelio and head of technology Ellen Hancock, the company is moving ahead with plans to update the Macintosh operating system - a platform known for its ease of use but saddled with decade-old roots.

Those aging roots have forced Mac users to put up with a system that crashes more often than they would like and that lacks some of the features available to users of rival Windows systems, including stable multitasking.

Having purchased Steve Jobs' NeXT Corp. to gain access to its operating system, Apple developers are busy trying to integrate the two technologies. The project, code-named Rhapsody, won't be available to users until some time next year, at the earliest.

In the meantime, owners of fairly recent Macintoshes will be offered an interim product, OS 8 (formerly code-named Tempo), to replace the current, five-year-old System 7 generation of operating systems.

With an expected release later this summer, Apple has been demonstrating its features. I saw OS 8 in action at a seminar held recently at Denman Street's Electric Zoo. And while OS 8 isn't a revolution, it looks like a useful step forward for Mac users.

A number of new features will save trips to the menu bar. For example, many objects offer contextual menus, meaning you can command-click on an icon, a window, or even text, and a menu pops up with the actions most usefully performed on that object. (Application software will need to be rewritten to take advantage of this handy feature.)

A new File Menu item lets you send an object to the Trash, even if the Trash icon is hidden. And dragging while pressing the Command and Option keys automatically creates an Alias.

Desktop clutter is addressed with new button and tab views of icons and windows. The buttons can be launched with a single click, while tabs minimize the amount of space taken by these objects but easily open up when needed to display their contents.

Mac OS 8 screen shot with Internet Explorer 4.0
Mac OS 8 screen shot with Internet Explorer 4.0.

Users get a modernized, 3-D look, which is more easily customized through a redesigned control panel.

An Internet Setup Assistant simplifies creating an account with an Internet service provider. The control panel adds a Connect To item, which allows direct connection to an Internet address at any time, regardless of what application is loaded. The Web Sharing Control Panel makes it easy to publish data on the Net.

Perhaps the most welcome improvements, however, are under the hood. The Mac Finder has been rewritten to take fuller advantage of PowerPC power. That means most Finder operations will feel perkier. As well, the Finder is now multithreaded, which means that multiple tasks can be performed at the same time, so you can start to copy a large number of files but keep working while the copying takes place, for example. (Formatting a disk, however, still shuts everything else down.)

Many of these features have been available as separate utilities, but it's nice to have them all integrated into a more stable package.

In many ways, however, OS 8 seems to be playing catch-up. Contextual menus have been just a right-click away for Windows 95 users, for example. So while OS 8 probably won't draw many Intel/Windows users to the Mac, it should prove an attractive upgrade for current users.

Farther off looms Rhapsody, the merger of NeXT and Apple technologies, which promises industrial-strength multitasking and other power features. Apple promises a Mac-like look and feel for this operating system, along with the ability to run the current generation of Mac software in what is described as the Blue Box.

Apple hopes, however, that software developers will start to write software for the next generation of Rhapsody-native applications. These will be run in a so-called Yellow Box.

Apple has also announced plans to make a version of Rhapsody available for Intel-based computers. Rhapsody for Intel will be able to run Yellow Box applications, but not today's current Mac applications. As a result, developers writing for the Yellow Box will be able to produce software that will run on both Macs and PCs. LEM

First published in Business in Vancouver August 7, 1997 High Tech Office column.

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Alan Zisman is Mac-using teacher and technology writer based in Vancouver, BC, Canada. Many of his articles are available on his website, www.zisman.ca. If you find Alan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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