Mac OS X: Living Long and Prospering

By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, April 2, 2006

Yesterday, Apple Computer Inc. turned 30 years old. But an equally significant anniversary occurred two Fridays ago: March 24 marked Mac OS X's fifth birthday.

Four major updates later, that operating system ranks as one of Apple's greatest successes. First, it broke the company's long streak of unfinished operating-system projects. Second, OS X has shown that it's possible to fix three of the worst parts of computing: adding programs, removing them and keeping everything in good working order.

Users and authors of other operating systems might want to ponder that example, not least after Microsoft's March 21 announcement that its already-late replacement to Windows XP, Windows Vista, would be delayed yet again. It's now not scheduled to appear in stores until January.

That Mac OS X would make any kind of dent in the universe was no sure thing when version 10.0 arrived on March 24, 2001. Its mere existence was a minor miracle: Since 1994, Apple had pledged to replace the aging Mac foundation with a multitasking, crash-proof system, then repeatedly failed to ship anything resembling that goal.

The best it could do was crank out lesser upgrades to a code base first released in 1991, with architectural defects dating to the Mac's birth in 1984. The Mac looked great and was easy to use, but it crashed way too often and tripped over its shoelaces when asked to run too many programs at once.

Mac OS X also looks great -- its fluid, shimmering, translucent Aqua interface has been imitated many times, most prominently in Windows Vista's Aero Glass graphics -- but those nifty special effects aren't the most important feature in OS X. Nor is it this operating system's agile multitasking and nearly crash-free stability, or even the processor-independent architecture, that make it at home on both PowerPC and Intel chips.

Instead, it's the way Mac OS X lives by three basic principles, which together make it easier to live with than any competitor.

· The system is separate from everything else. Perhaps scarred by the old Mac OS, which could easily be modified and destabilized by third-party extensions, Apple locked up the core of OS X. Users can look but can't touch at the system's guts without typing an administrator's password, and the same goes for any programs that they install and run.

The immediate benefit of this is security against viruses and other intruders. They can't do nearly as much damage as they could in Windows, where everybody normally has the run of the machine, without a user's express consent.

This policy has also kept OS X free of the rot-from-within that afflicts Windows over time. A Mac's System folder won't clog up with byproducts of software installations, because they usually can't get there in the first place. The programs themselves all land in the same Applications folder (more on that later), and if they must add any system-wide supporting files, they go in a separate, easily inspected Library folder.

· Each user's files are separate from everybody else's. Every file you create or use exists in your own home folder, named after your user name, including any personalized settings and cached files for your programs. This ensures that the users of a Mac can customize their software without affecting each other's experiences and vastly simplifies debugging faulty programs and making backups of data.

If a program starts acting up, just run it in another user's account -- or create a new account. If the problem persists there, you need to look for an updated copy of the program. If it doesn't, you can probably fix things by deleting the applications files from the Library folder in your home directory.

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