Debatable beta 

All hail the great cult of Macintosh! Devotees of the original point-and-click home computer had reason to rejoice last month when Apple chief Steve Jobs announced the first public beta release of his company’s much-delayed, much-hyped operating system, OS X. (Insiders say it, “Oh Ess Ten.”)

As with any beta release, the new operating system — featuring a funky, redesigned interface and “incredible improvements in stability and performance” — is not exactly bug-free. But Apple wants its users to “be active in the future of Macintosh.” So they’re inviting faithful Mac-heads to test out the software and report any glitches back to the apple.com mother ship.

You can too ... for a price. In a controversial move that breaks from traditional industry practices, this beta costs $29.95. That’s right, almost 30 big ones. As most software biz types know, beta releases are usually free. The reason? Beta users provide software makers with an invaluable service; discovering what features don’t work in real-world user situations.

It’s a fair trade. After all, beta testers are also taking a dangerous chance with crashing their own systems, since they’re basically running untested code. To put it bluntly, as a recent New York Times article pointed out, “(Mac users) are using the software at their own risk.”

Ouch.

So what’s the generally saintly Mac community’s response to this cynical move? More devotion, apparently. MacCentral.com issued a report on Sept. 19 saying that beta sales are nearing 100,000 units and that “orders have been pouring into the Apple Store.” Other reactions on message boards have been less enthusiastic, but still eminently charitable (“I’ll forgive them ... this time,” said one disillusioned but quickly recovering Mac addict).

After all these years, it seems a little odd to see the Mac throng’s piety burning so strong. The “computer for the rest of us” long ago became the computer that rests on its laurels.

Here’s proof: Apple first announced a new operating system way back in 1994 (remember Copland?). In the ensuing years, we’ve been deluged with all forms of pretty Day-Glo packaging (admittedly, a welcome change from corporate beige). But as my PC-based techie friend Tom likes to say, it’s “an amazing triumph of design over technology.”

Six years and as many cute product introductions later ... there’s still no working OS. And now we’re asked to pay for the beta.

So where’s the user outrage, the protests, the vicious Usenet flame war? Clearly, Apple is taking a page from scourge (and since 1997, big-money investor) Microsoft’s marketing bible with this pay-to-play maneuver. PC users will recall Microsoft pioneered “beta charging” with its last release of Windows — a move that was soundly condemned by Windows insiders. So where’s the mass e-mail asking for Steve Jobs’ head?

The real question users should be asking Apple is this: What have you done for me lately? It’s business practices like these that have driven PC users to create today’s true version of the people’s computer — a home-brewed PC running an open-source version of the Linux OS. An OS, I might add, that’s always been absolutely free. And amen to that.

Maybe it’s time for devout Mac-heads to find a new religion, and do it their own damn selves. Can I get a witness? Or am I just preaching to the converted?

LOCAL GOES GLOBAL

Detroit expatriates, rejoice! Your favorite hometown radio station has finally spread its virtual wings. Starting last month, our beloved public radio broadcaster began Web streaming its live signal 24/7 from www.wdetfm.org.

Users will need a QuickTime or ChainCast audio plug-in to hear the online feed. Says WDET general manager Caryn Mathes, “(This technology) allows displaced Detroiters to tune into the station anywhere in the world.”

It’s about time. Anxious out-of-town 'DET fans have been waiting many months for this upgrade to the station’s Web site. Their numerous phone calls and e-mails, the station reports, helped accelerate the process.

MORE CAMPAIGN BUTTONS

Last month’s Netropolis report on presidential candidates (“Campaign buttons,” MT, Sept. 6-13) inspired several e-mails, including a particularly inspiring one from Detroiter Mel Ravitz.

“Instead of looking at the candidates’ ‘puff’ pieces,” suggests Ravitz, “Try an objective source of candidate information.” Mel recommends vote-smart.org, which is indeed an excellent source of hard, objective info on all the candidates. With entries on nearly 200 (!) presidential hopefuls, it’s an amazing resource.

Interestingly, George W. Bush, Al Gore, even progressive darling Ralph Nader have not responded to the site’s repeated requests for position statements on various key issues.

“Although Nader is an admirable citizen,” writes Ravitz, “One has to wonder why, as a ‘third-party’ candidate, he didn’t jump at the chance to express his views on a broad range of issues.”

Good question, Mel. Maybe it’s because he’s been busy redesigning his own site. Last week, the Nader campaign debuted a completely new look on votenader.org. It’s still easy-to-use (and perhaps better organized), but it lacks the clunky charm of the previous version. Hey Ralph ... bring back that retro magenta vibe!

Join Adam Druckman online at www.metrotimes.com, or e-mail him at adruckman@metrotimes.com

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