Apple Computer's most recent OS, Mac OS X 10.2--code-named Jaguar and released 2 weeks ago--is a viable alternative to the Windows XP juggernaut, especially for people interested in digital-media tasks. But is it enough? Despite months of "Switch" ads aimed at luring Windows users to the Macintosh fold, steady improvements to its core OS, and a stable full of desirable hardware, Apple continues to lose market share, even in its one-time stronghold, the education market. Is Jaguar the "purrfect" OS upgrade or just the latest in a long line of capable also-rans?

I guess that depends on who you are; no one can answer the question in a vacuum. First, Mac OS X won't be viable if no one uses it, and existing Mac users (who number roughly 20 million, according to Apple) haven't been upgrading to Mac OS X in big numbers. By July 2002, 18 months after the first Mac OS X release, only 2.5 million Apple customers had switched to Mac OS X as their primary Mac OS, mostly because of performance problems and software and hardware incompatibilities. To put these numbers in perspective, consider XP, which shipped just after Mac OS X 10.1 last fall: Microsoft has sold more than 50 million XP licenses in less than a year. Game over, right?

Not exactly. As Apple is quick to point out, niche markets can be big money makers. The company's global market share is similar to what BMW has obtained in the worldwide automotive market, and few people would label BMW an also-ran. On the other hand, BMW doesn't face a single, ultra-competitive foe that controls roughly 96 percent of its market. But Apple could double its market share without too much effort, and that's what the company's often-vocal followers hope for. And Apple has big plans to make such a thing happen.

The first plan involves creating gorgeous hardware, such as the new 17" iMac, svelte PowerBook G4, and award-winning iPod, which Apple recently released in various Windows-compatible versions. Hardware as beautiful as Apple's is uncommon in the PC industry, and its innovative designs drive people to Apple.com and the company's many retail stores. These venues attempt to show that small though it might be, the Mac market is still big enough to attract hardware and software makers that give Mac users what they need to work and play with their computers. But Apple's hardware solutions come with a not-so-hidden downside: The PowerPC architecture that drives modern Macs has fallen significantly behind the Intel and AMD architectures PC users enjoy. So Windows-based PCs are usually much faster, less expensive, and easier to find, fix, and maintain than Macs. And the performance gap, especially, is widening daily.

Apple's plan also includes the Switch ad campaign, which shows real ex-Windows users who have switched to the Mac. These ads are curious for many reasons, the most obvious of which is that they don't show or discuss any of Apple's products. Whether the Switch ads have had any significant effect on Mac's market share is unclear, but we can expect Apple to trumpet any successes it might eventually see. On that note, one important Apple market is indeed switching, but away from the Mac: the education market. Apple's share of this market is now less than half of market-leader Dell's share. Apple once owned more than 50 percent of the education market but now commands less than 12 percent, according to market research firm International Data Corporation (IDC). That's bad news for Apple no matter how you slice it.

But the final part of Apple's plan, an ever-improving Mac OS X, holds the most promise. Although the company is widely known as a hardware maker, it's also been in the software business from the software industry's earliest days, and its modern Mac OS X 10.2 release is sure to gain some converts. Essentially a minor upgrade to previous Mac OS X versions, Jaguar includes numerous small updates and refinements but few major new innovations. Here's the problem in a nutshell: Although Apple has produced its most compelling OS release ever, Jaguar might not be enough to increase Mac adoption.

So what's new in Jaguar? Apple told me that this release includes more than 150 new features. Jaguar includes excellent communications tools, such as a new Mail.app version with an interesting junk-mail-removal feature, an attractive AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) front-end called iChat, and a new system-wide address book. All these tools are roughly analogous to what XP users might expect on their systems. Jaguar's Web-browsing experience, however, lags significantly because of bizarre performance problems, and I have yet to find a Web browser that performs adequately under any Mac OS X version. It's frustrating.

Jaguar also includes a new QuickTime version, QuickTime 6, which supports the MPEG-4 video format and instant-on Web streaming. Apple significantly updated its Sherlock application with support for numerous Web services so that you can search for items such as movie listings and reviews, eBay auctions, and restaurants; Apple added Sherlock's file-finding capabilities back to Mac OS X's shell, the Finder. Conversely, Jaguar's Help system is an embarrassment.

Apple has dramatically improved Windows network interoperability in Mac OS X 10.2, answering all my complaints about previous versions. You can now browse Windows workgroups natively from Jaguar and even appear on a Windows network as a Windows machine. However, you still can't share printers attached to Windows PCs. I'd love to see that feature added.

But Jaguar's biggest strength, as always, is its so-called iApps, none of which Apple upgraded for this release. The applications include iTunes for digital music recording and management; iPhoto for digital photo acquisition and management; iMovie for digital movie acquisition, editing, and distribution; and, on recordable DVD-equipped Macs, iDVD for creating home DVD movies. Most of these applications are excellent, but XP's built-in tools easily match iPhoto and iTunes. Although iMovie is much more sophisticated that XP's Windows Movie Maker, it's also more complicated and works only with digital video inputs. iDVD is simply the most wonderful piece of software on the planet, unmatched on any system. And iDVD remains the key reason to consider a Mac.

In case it isn't obvious, Jaguar's problem is that it doesn't overtly improve Apple's chances of gaining ground on Windows. Macs are still better than Windows PCs if you need to deal primarily with digital video. And they are equally capable for digital audio and photos, although not nearly as viable for most other computer-based tasks, such as game playing, productivity applications, and Web and software development. That Jaguar includes more than 150 small improvements speaks more to the fact that Mac OS X simply needed that much refinement than it does to any superiority to Windows.

But don't take that statement as a criticism of Jaguar, which is a refined, stable, and mature OS. The problem is inertia. As my wife recently commented, Mac OS X can't simply be as good as or a little better than Windows for most people to give up their Windows systems, take the time to learn the new system, and convert and copy all their valuable data. No, it has to be two or three times as good, and the transition has to be totally seamless. Otherwise, the costs are just too great to justify the aggravation. And although Jaguar is, at best, a viable alternative to Windows?one that many people would be quite happy with?it's still not better than XP. And it most certainly isn't two or three times as good.

That said, I really do like Mac OS X, especially this refined new Jaguar release. But I wonder whether it's good enough to make anyone switch.