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Review: Mac OS 9 boosts Internet access, file sharing, security

October 29, 1999
Web posted at: 12:09 p.m. EDT (1609 GMT)

by Jeff Senna

OS 9

(IDG) -- When Apple releases a significant update to its operating system, Mac enthusiasts are first in line to get the latest and greatest version.

However, IT managers often wait until the new version has been out long enough for them to hear about potential problems. Furthermore, Mac OS 9 isn't as dramatic an upgrade as was Mac OS 8. This fact alone could make Mac OS 9 a tough sell to IT managers; its close resemblance to Mac OS 8's interface and functionality may not provide a compelling case for upgrading.

Nonetheless, there's a lot to like in this version, in which Apple expands upon Mac OS 8.6 by placing more emphasis on enhanced networking, Internet integration, and security, rather than dressing it up with cosmetic changes. Shredding all remnants of 680x0 processor code, Mac OS 9, formerly code-named Sonata, will run only on Power Macs, starting with the PowerPC 601 processor.

Mac Compatible?

In addition to a bevy of improvements and updates to system extensions and control panels, this version features two notable items. The Multiple Users feature, which replaces the Users & Groups control panel, provides users with the ability to share a single Power Mac and have their own personalized desktops, private folders, and applications. In addition, The redesigned search utility, Sherlock 2, sports a redesigned look resembling the QuickTime 4 player, and provides searches for online shopping.

The upcoming Mac OS X client, scheduled for release late in 2000, will be based on the Mach kernel, running on top of BSD 4.4, and will boast a fully modern OS, complete with preemptive multitasking and protected memory.

Some IT managers may want to hold off on upgrading to Mac OS 9 and wait for OS X. Unfortunately, Mac OS X will install only on G3-based systems such as the iMac, the "blue and white" G3 minitower, PowerBook G3 1999, and the new G4-based systems. Still, if you're using the older, beige G3 Power Macs, you'll be able to run applications developed for Mac OS X while running Mac OS 9, because Mac OS X includes an extension to support those applications.

When enabling the Multiple Users feature, you create user profiles and have three types of user access: Normal, Limited, and Panel. To expedite the process, you can create a default user and duplicate it, modify the user name and password, and finally assign the type of application and system access you want to provide.

Normal access is the default and does not put any limitations on users; they can access almost anything on the system though they see only their own folders. They also cannot delete certain items that are available only to the Power Mac owner.

Limited access provides users with the familiar desktop, which they can modify -- when authorized -- with their own personal themes, preferences, and so forth. Each user has a personal folder; you can also create a shared folder, which each user on the system can access.

With Panel access, the user will see only a desktop with columns containing icons of applications and personal folders. This feature is useful for setting up shared Power Macs for kiosks or guest modes with general applications.

I liked the fact that Apple designed this feature as part of the kernel; thus an end-user cannot bypass it by starting up the Power Mac with extensions off and gaining access to the entire system. If users try this, a message indicates that the owner's password is required to access the desktop. Still, tech-savvy users can potentially bypass this if the Power Mac uses a Jaz drive with a system folder.

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Improved networking and Internet capabilities

The new file-encryption feature can help protect sensitive information from prying eyes. With the addition of Personal File Sharing over TCP/IP, it is possible to open up your system to the Internet, so the ability to protect your data becomes more important.

In addition to file encryption, Apple has reintroduced the Keychain. This feature works much like a single sign-on solution that lets you store a list of user IDs and passwords so you don't have to waste time by entering them each time you access an encrypted file, or log in to an FTP server, e-mail server, file server, and so forth. Moreover, the Keychain feature can be stored on a network file server, where you can access it from another system.

Although Multiple Users support should function locally or via the network (using Mac OS X Server's Macintosh Manager) when configured within the Global Multiple Users Options dialog box to connect over a network, I was unable to connect to my server running the Macintosh Manager server software. Whenever I attempted this, a dialog box appeared indicating that it could not locate the AppleShare server and failed to connect after I entered the IP address. (Editor's note: We are still working on this and will update this article once we've solved the problem.)

I would like to see Apple add the capability to associate local and network users within the log-in panel because this would allow for roaming access; the current architecture requires either local or network, but not a mix of both.

With the Multiple Users feature, you can define security privileges to keep applications and documents from being accessed or deleted. With new support for IP-based file sharing, which enables you to share your documents over the Internet, you can also make use of the new file-level encryption function for adding an extra level of security -- ensuring that sensitive information doesn't fall into the wrong hands. Only those using Mac OS 9 have the ability to encrypt and decode files by entering a password that they created when initially encrypting the file.

The search utility, Sherlock 2, now provides the capability to search for people via Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP) servers, search for goods in auction sites, locate information in public reference sites, and much more. In addition, you can create your own "channel" by dragging and dropping items from other default channels into your own. Because Sherlock 2 uses a plug-in architecture, third-party plug-ins can be easily developed and made available in new channels.

Although the updated Network Browser (an alternative to accessing servers via the Chooser) works much like the original, support for open standards such as the Service Location Protocol (SLP) allows you to access network resources other than AppleTalk servers. By creating Neighborhoods, it is possible to browse a variety of both local and nonlocal Internet resources that support SLP, allowing you to access other users' shared file systems using AppleShare over TCP/IP. You can also access FTP servers, LDAP servers, and Web sites by selecting these from within the pop-up networks icon.

Unfortunately, I experienced difficulties when attempting to connect to a local Power Mac within my subnet via a Neighborhood, as well as when connecting to LDAP servers. Further, the Network Browser would continuously try to locate a resource and doesn't provide a stop button to halt the process. This is one function I would like to see in future updates because it's difficult to know whether the entry you provide will result in a successful connection.

Network Browser adopts the same interface used in the enhanced File Menu open/save dialog box (called Navigation Services) and features the same three pop-up menus: Shortcuts, Favorites, and Recent. Two arrow icons let you navigate back and forth, or you can open a network resource in a separate window by double-clicking an icon; this is particularly handy when accessing FTP servers.

Those developing multimedia projects will welcome updated QuickTime components, Firewire 2.2.2, new ATI drivers, and enhanced file manager APIs that enable third-party application developers to create updated nonlinear video-editing software to create files larger than 2GB. Although the release of HFS+ provided the ability to have volumes as large as 2 terabytes, the updated APIs now support file sizes of up to 2 terabytes.

Other improvements include ColorSync 3.0 and a brand-new feature called FontSync, which will prove particularly helpful for those running prepress functions. FontSync analyzes the structure and metrics of fonts and helps to eliminate problems when sending out QuarkXPress, Adobe PageMaker, and other desktop-publishing documents to service bureaus.

Despite some of the problems I experienced while attempting to connect to resources using the updated Network Browser as well as attempting to log in to my Mac OS X Server using the Macintosh Manager, I suspect these difficulties will be quickly resolved. Apple is moving in the right direction in providing better support for networking, leading the way for an easy migration to Mac OS X applications, simplifying the process for locating Internet resources, and enhancing its core technologies.

In all, this release is still worth considering -- particularly if you're collaborating on sensitive documents and want to take advantage of the new Internet features.

The bottom line

Summary:Despite the full revision jump to Mac OS 9, this latest version looks and feels much like its predecessor. Instead of overhauling the interface, Apple put more emphasis in other areas, such as new Internet functionality, improved network components, and new security features. Besides some minor quirks, Mac OS 9's new features show promise in helping both seasoned and new users work more productively.

Business Case:Although most end-users will want to upgrade immediately, IT Managers may wish to wait because Apple plans to ship the Mac OS X client sometime next year; that may be too soon to go through the rigors of deployment twice in 12 months. However, Mac OS X isn't perfect: When that product ships it will require a longer learning period and updated software to work natively. Moreover, it won't work with older Power Macs. Mac OS 9, on the other hand, supports PowerPC-based systems from the 601 PPC and higher. Mac OS 9 can increase user productivity, especially in collaborating on sensitive documents and Internet searches.

Cost: $99; $79 with $20 rebate for current Mac OS 8.5 customers; Discounts for education and volume licenses

+ Enhanced Sherlock 2 (customizable search application)
+ Secure Multiple Users support per machine
+ Easy-to-use file-encryption features
+ Keychain feature provides excellent password management
+ TCP/IP-based personal file sharing; TCP/IP support in AppleScript

- Sluggish performance while booting
- Periodic Network Browser problems
- Problems connecting to Macintosh Manager on Mac OS X Server.
- Application and extension conflicts when installing over existing system

Platforms: Power Macs with 32MB minimum of RAM and virtual memory turned on; PowerPC 601 and higher; G3 and higher recommended with at least 64MB minimum RAM for best performance.

Jeff Senna is a senior analyst in the InfoWorld Test Center.

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