Macintosh System 7.5 reviewed

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The new Apple Macintosh system: is it more of the same? Or is it really a cunningly-disguised revolution?

System 7.5 is Apple's latest operating system release. Intended to run on power Macintosh hardware (as well as older 68000-based Macintoshii), it rolls a whole bundle of technologies into Apple's core operating system. Some of what it offers is rehashed from last years' System 7 Pro release, targeted at high-end users; but a lot of it is completely new.

Unlike System 7 Pro, which was an expensive point release aimed at people who needed the kitchen sink on their desktop -- with networking, scripting, foreign language support, and electronic mail thrown in -- System 7.5 is aimed squarely at the Mac User on the Clapham Omnibus. And for that reason, it's fast (at least, as fast as any modern operating system can be), and modular (so that if you don't own a Quadra or a Power Macintosh you can leave out the bells and whistles that would otherwise slow you down).

First Sight

Like all operating systems, System 7 has been growing. Beta editions of this release would fill at least eight floppy disks -- more like fifteen if you count QuickDraw GX and PowerTalk. It's easiest to install from a CD-ROM drive, and indeed this is what I did. Installation went smoothly, aided by a new, improved customization facility; help is now provided on the contents of packages, so if you know what you're doing you can tailor your system out of the box. Still, once you've made your choices expect to spend up to half an hour watching them install. This is where the CD-ROM kit comes in handy -- you can go and have a cup of coffee instead of slaving over a hot floppy disk drive.

I installed over an existing System 7.1 configuration. Once the installation was complete, all I had to do was reboot to see System 7.5. Or rather, reboot a couple of times; as this was an upgrade installed over a system loaded with extensions, it was inevitable that some would malfunction. It was surprising how few glitches there were; a virtual desktop application warned me it was running on an unknown system (then and carried on working), and Connectix RAM Doubler refused to run. (It turns out that you must be running version 1.04 or higher of RAM Doubler to be compatible with System 7.5. However, Connectix have made the upgrade freely available; you can find it on the internet, or get it from your dealer.) Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by how little fuss the upgrade process made.

System 7.5 looks superficially very similar to System 7.1. The only obvious differences on the desktop are that if you drag a file across an open folder window, the window is highlighted -- a nice touch, as it makes it easier to see where the files go when you drop them. But there are changes -- lots of them. They just lurk a little way beneath the skin.

About this Macintosh

Help me!

Apple have completely revamped their help system, adding a new interface that serves as an alternative to Balloon Help. Like most serious users, I find Balloon Help more of a nuisance than an aid: it was a pleasant surprise to find that this time Apple got it right.

Apple Guide is a built-in interactive help system. It is task-oriented (unlike Balloon Help, which acted as a kind of glossary) and in organization somewhat resembles Microsoft Windows Help. It's visually attractive, and a big step in the right direction; it actually helps get things done.

Apple Guide Balloon Help is still there, but Apple say that the Guide system is the way to go; easily customized, they expect it to become the standard for on-line help in Macintosh applications.


One area where System 7.5 is miles ahead of its predecessors -- and has stolen a leap over the forthcoming Windows 4 -- is in its ability to interoperate with other systems.

Apple File Exchange, the program that used to read and write DOS format floppies, is no more. Instead, PC Exchange has been folded into the main Operating System. For the first time, a Macintosh system installed out of the box can read and write DOS disks without helpfully offering to format them -- an offer that some neophytes find hard to resist. I don't know why this didn't happen years ago, but it's long overdue and a very welcome addition to the system.

More importantly, System 7.5 contains some pretty revolutionary tools to make networking easier. Something like 60% of all Macintoshes are networked; a testimony to the ease with which you can cable Macs together. (No need to fiddle with networking cards and set interrupts with jumpers; with two Macs you just run a printer cable between them, and with more Macs you daisy-chain them using Appletalk cable. It's enough to make a Novell administrator weep.) Appletalk is all very well, but it's not a universal standard. What is, besides Novell's IPX/SPX? Well, there's always TCP/IP -- the Internet protocols. And System 7.5 comes with MacTCP 2.04 built-in. This on its own will be enough to make some people buy the new system; it means that Macs are pretty-close to being Internet ready right out of the box. Of course it has its own set of problems (MacTCP being notoriously arcane and hard to configure) but at least it's there if you need it. Microsoft are promising to ship a Winsock DLL -- a Windows TCP/IP stack -- with Windows 4, but it hasn't happened yet. Some UNIX systems ship without it and charge a whacking great extra fee for a TCP/IP license. And so on.

Internet connectivity isn't something most people think about -- yet. But it's an issue of mushrooming importance. It's estimated that by the end of the decade, that 60% of all Macintoshes on LANs will have been transformed into 60% of all personal computers on the internet. And the future -- three to five years ahead -- is where you've got to keep your eyes if you're designing an operating system.

As if supporting TCP/IP and AppleTalk isn't enough, System 7.5 also comes with PowerTalk, Apple's heavily-touted open communications architecture. The idea of PowerTalk is simple: users may need to communicate, but they don't want to be bothered with the details of _how_ they communicate. PowerTalk isn't a communications system so much as a framework for communications systems. If you run a PowerTalk-aware application on a System 7.5 machine with a PowerTalk-aware network gateway, you can send and receive just about anything from the application to the network. You can make it sit on top of several different network protocols, a fax interface, even a telephone dialer; but they all look like PowerTalk to the applications.

The upshot of all this is simple. Apple is going for interoperability and client-server computing in a big way. They understand that Macintoshes are not the only personal computers out there, and they are trying very hard to make sure that Macintoshes are compatible with just about everything. It's a plan that's hard to fault, except on the utilitarian grounds that PowerTalk is a memory hog -- don't try to run it on a machine with less than 12 Mb of RAM. (There's also a notable issue over their encryption technique (used to protect confidential data in transit over email), which requires public keys to be registered with Apple themselves but that's another matter. It's very hard for a US company to be open about encryption, with the arms export control regulations hanging over their collective head.)


Not only is System 7.5 more "open" than earlier System 7 releases, it's more flexible. Apple have finally paid up on the promise of AppleScript; AppleScript is bundled with the System, along with a scriptable Finder. Applescript editor

Just how important this is remains to be seen. The Macintosh is notorious for being a system where you don't _need_ to script things -- most everything you need to do, you can do graphically. But the addition of AppleScript is still very welcome. With an appropriate suite of scriptable applications, it's now possible to engage in heavy-duty automation of the kind that PC users have always taken for granted. AppleScript is effectively an object-oriented scripting environment, where the objects are the scriptable applications; the result is a flexible, extremely powerful way of managing your work.

I could spend this whole review talking about AppleScript and how important it is, but I won't -- except to note that scriptability overcomes one major problem the Mac has had in penetrating corporate markets; if you can't write scripts for a system to follow, you can't automate the way people work with it.

At a fundamental level, System 7.5 is more flexible than earlier releases. There are a lot of useful widgets tucked away in there, all aimed at different markets -- but you don't _have_ to load them, because they're all modular.

First, there are the freeware goodies. Extension Manager is a control panel you can use to configure those extensions and (other) control panels that are loaded at startup. This makes it a lot easier to reconfigure your system. It used to be a freeware program, and it was on my "can't live without this list" -- but no more: it's part of an official Apple product. Ditto Windowshade. Double-click on a window's title bar and the window rolls up to reveal whatever lies behind it -- cute, and vital on a crowded desktop. The Control Strip (introduced with the new 500-series Powerbooks) is also supplied as part of System 7.5; a nifty toolbar that zips in and out of the side of your screen whenever you need it. Using the Textures control panel you can set your desktop to a whole slew of interesting new backgrounds -- enough to make a Windows user feel bored with their wallpaper.

Desktop Patterns Puzzle

Finally, there's the Hierarchical Apple Menu. Instead of holding simple files, you can drop directories or aliases into the Apple Menu Folder -- and the Apple menu presents you with a cascade of pop-up menus. All of these programs are extensions or control panels provided as extras; you can unload them if you don't want them, but they're there if you do.

In addition to these goodies, a number of extras have been provided; these are rolled in from the System Update 3.0 kit, and include SimpleText (which replaces the unpleasant old TeachText editor),

Simpletext editor

and the enhanced SCSI 4.3 driver set (to speed access to your hard disks).

Then there's QuickDraw GX.

QuickDraw GX is another much-touted extra for System 7.5 (via System 7 Pro). It's features are primarily of interest to people involved in DTP and design; an enhanced font-management system, easy printing (drag-and-drop of documents over printer icons on the desktop), and configuration- independent documents (that can be opened, viewed and printed on any other QuickDraw-GX equipped system, even if the original fonts or applications are not available). The latter is something to watch out for: it sounds remarkably like Adobe's Acrobat technology for document interchange, and will be a life-saver in high-end publishing jobs where it is vital that the document that is printed (on one sites' phototypesetter) is identical to the document that is created (at the design end of another site). QuickDraw GX works with WorldScript, a very thorough international language handling system that permits the Macintosh System to work properly in languages such as Arabic or Japanese (where the character sets and language conventions are very different from Latin-based alphabets). QuickDraw GX undoubtedly is a "must-have" for some publishing applications, although its 8 Mb memory footprint (on top of the operating system) will deter low-end users -- like me -- from making much use of it. At least, until the hardware catches up with the software.

Do you need it?

he answer is: almost certainly yes. It's a lot easier to say who doesn't need it than who does.

You don't want System 7.5 if:

I've installed System 7.5 on an original Macintosh LC with 10Mb of RAM and a 40Mb hard disk. It runs fine -- indeed, it's no slower than System 7.1 -- but it's taken over half the disk. This is not a system to install on older Macintoshes. But then, neither was plain old System 7.

You want System 7.5 if:

I've installed a beta release of System 7.5 on a Powerbook 145. As a tribute to the stability and utility of the system, it's not going to be removed -- until I get a final release. Simply put, it's too useful in too many small ways.

But all this review has done is beg the most important question of all, which is:

Why does Apple want System 7.5?

In 1992, John Sculley (then CEO of Apple) declared that in two years time Apple would cease to be a computer manufacturer, and become an operating systems company with a side-line in hardware and applications. Accordingly, when System 7's successor -- System 7.1 -- came out, it was only bundled for free with new Macintoshes; other users had to pay for the upgrade. At the same time, Apple began slackening their policy of ruthlessly pursuing clone makers through the courts. (Indeed, Apple have now licensed their Macintosh architecture to Acer, who are expected to begin selling Power Macintosh clones in 1995, and rumours are circulating about an Apple-IBM deal that will bring a Big Blue Power Macintosh to the market.)

I should hasten to explain that this behaviour is entirely consistent with Sculley's strategic vision. At the beginning of the 1990's, Apple was forced to contemplate a disastrous situation. Microsoft controlled 90% of the single-user computer market; a Microsoft operating system sat on the vast majority of desktops. It was becoming evident by the late 1980's that application development was no longer a matter of one hacker coding late into the night in their attic. Huge development teams are needed to prepare modern applications.

If Microsoft accounted for 90% of the possible sales, then no application developer in their right mind would dare to spend as much on developing Macintosh software as on developing for Windows. As a result, the Macintosh platform would fall behind in terms of applications -- and, shortly thereafter, users would stop buying them.

The situation looked bleak, but Apple had one major advantage over Microsoft; they were not locked into a single CPU architecture to anything like the same extent. Microsoft's domination of the PC desktop was in turn dependent on Intel continuing to produce chips that were backward compatible with earlier models, and on _all_ the clone manufacturers continuing to use Intel (or Intel-lookalike) chips. Indeed, one attempt to wean the PC market away from Intel -- the ACE initiative -- was a complete disaster as manufacturer after manufacturer cut their losses and ran away from the proposed MIPS R4000 based standard.

Apple, on the other hand, had the final say over the hardware it chose to build. And Apple was dancing with Motorola, who could also see the writing on the wall for their venerable 68000-series CPUs.

Sculley's initiative (to turn Apple into an operating systems company), and the PowerPC systems, are twin sides of the same coin; a daring attempt to break the Microsoft/Intel domination of the personal computing market. By sacrificing binary compatibility in favour of emulation, Apple freed up Motorola to provide a CPU of such raw power that it could run the emulated applications as fast as a conventional chip (and run native-mode programs faster still). At the same time, the Macintosh System was not the only one to benefit from emulation. Running SoftWindows, a Macintosh can now compete with a PC for desktop space running Windows applications -- and future Apple developments are rumoured to include a Presentation Manager that will make System 7 resemble Windows, or Motif, or OS/2, at the click of a mouse button.

If it looks like Windows, runs Windows software, and is as fast as a PC, then Apple will be able to cut themselves in on a good share of Microsoft's market (while keeping their own faithful users in the stable). And when Taligent's Pink (or IBM's Workplace OS) are ready to replace today's operating systems with object-oriented ones, Apple want to have a chance at grabbing the main share of the market -- not just the corner they were relegated to during the 1980's and early 90's.

System 7.5 is a critical part of Apple's journey towards their goal of becoming The Other Microsoft. It's modular, it provides full support for the Power Macintosh, and it will in due course run on machines made by IBM and Acer. Hidden in its guts is a sophisticated pre-emptive multi-threading system; although it still uses cooperative multitasking at the application level, System 7.5 provides the infrastructure for a rumoured micro-kernel based operating system that Apple are said to be working on. And System 7.5 gives a lot of people a lot of reasons to buy an Apple operating system, rather than sticking with the version that came with their machine.

It remains to be seen how well System 7.5 will compete with Windows 4 (Chicago). Actually, that could be taken as a non-sequiteur -- after all, System 7.5 runs on Macintoshes, and Windows 4 runs on PC's -- but, as I've noted, the barriers between platforms are crumbling under the onslaught of high-performance RISC processors and high-performance emulation modes.

Windows NT runs on DEC Alpha systems and MIPS 4000 based workstations, and there may soon be IBM and Acer Macintosh clones. Apple have already released a port of System 7.1, running in an emulation environment under UNIX on some HP workstations. Although System 7 for Intel appears to be on the shelf for now, it would be surprising if in due course Microsoft did not go for the heart of the Macintosh clone market (with a port of Windows for Macintosh) and if Apple did not go for the Windows market (with a version of System 7 that includes a true Windows emulator rather than just a SoftWindows demo).

The next three years will determine the winner who sets the pace in personal computing for the next century. Will the Power PC initiative follow the path of the ACE platform three years ago, or will it succeed in establishing a progressive alternative to the Intel architecture that has dominated personal computing for the past decade? And even if PowerPC is successful, will Apple succeed in wrestling the trophy of the desktop away from Microsoft? It's too early to tell yet: but on the basis of System 7.5, I'd say that if anyone can break Microsoft's dominance, Apple can.

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