You might be aware that the Macintosh's weak spot has historically been its OS, which has survived largely unchanged for a decade and a half. That situation changed this spring when Apple finally released Mac OS X ("ten"), which is based on Berkley System Designs (BSD) UNIX, a Mach micro-kernel, and the elegant NeXTStep software that Steve Jobs developed while between jobs at Apple. The end result is an OS that rivals Windows 2000, Windows NT, and Linux for reliability and stability. The OS also has a gorgeous UI.

Judging an OS solely on its look and feel is shallow I suppose, but there's something special about Mac OS X. The Aqua UI has its annoyances--those darn hopping icons in the new dock, for example--but Apple hit a home run with this OS. Mac OS X is still incomplete, although the company plans to complete it this summer. One problem I ran into with the initial release is that it contains no DVD playback software, which is curious. And an emulation mode--called the Classic environment--that runs older Mac OS applications loads slowly, which is a pain for people with a vast library of existing applications.

Apple claims the OS will soon be the most commonly used UNIX desktop. It's amazing that the company was able, in one-fell swoop, to completely out-do years of UI work by the Linux camp: Mac OS X is far more elegant than anything on Linux. Comparing the OS to Windows is more of a draw: Mac OS X's visuals are cleaner and more aesthetically pleasing than Windows XP's Luna interface, but XP's task-based paradigm will help people be more productive. And Windows users won't need to relearn simple skills when moving to XP, as Mac users must do when moving to Mac OS X.

For users who've suffered through Mac OS 9's constant crashes, Mac OS X is the answer. And for heterogeneous environments with Macintosh clients, Mac OS X is worth a look. It's stable, fast, and beautiful to look at.

Speaking of Mac OS X, I was a little disappointed with Microsoft's response to this new platform. The company ships a beta version of Internet Explorer (IE) 5.1 for Mac OS X with the OS and the final IE version and a native version of Office are due later this year. But the company has no plans to port other existing applications, such as its Outlook Express client or Windows Media Player (WMP) software, to Mac OS X, despite the fact that both are available for earlier Mac OS versions. I suppose application support will come as Mac OS X becomes more pervasive, but I expected a bigger commitment from Microsoft. This chicken-or-egg dilemma also seems to be playing out with other Mac software houses, who apparently are waiting for the market to grow before showing up with new native applications. Windows users have never had to deal with this problem, and although Apple's break with the past is laudable, I think this approach will cause problems.

Overall, Mac OS X is a promising Windows competitor, with the technical underpinnings to warrant head-to-head comparisons. I'll be watching Mac OS X to see how it improves in the coming months, and I'm looking forward to a new Office version that takes advantage of this platform. For digital media work, the Macintosh is still the platform of choice.