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ISSUE 501: The high-tech office- June 1 1999


Operating system upgrades offer some extras,
but nothing that can't wait until later

A few weeks ago, this column took a look at the feisty open source operating system called Linux. But while Linux is getting lots of well-deserved attention, more traditional operating systems from Microsoft and Apple still control the vast bulk of users' computers. And these companies are not prepared to give up control of your desktop. Each has a new minor release of their mass market operating systems, and each has bigger changes planned.

First off the mark is Apple with its OS 8.6, available as I write as a 35-meg download ( or a $30 CD ordered directly from the company. Either version, however, is only accessible by users of the previous OS 8.5. Other Mac owners first need to upgrade to OS 8.5 to go all the way to 8.6.

Once there, OS 8.6 promises better battery life for Powerbook owners and increased system stability. OS 8.6 allows Powerbook users to connect their laptops to many cell phone models for wireless communications. Hardware support is improved for USB, Firewire, DVD-RAM and game-playing devices. A new version of Apple's Runtime for Java improves performance running Java-enhanced Internet pages.

The Sherlock search utility, which debuted in OS 8.5, features much touted improvements. New additions include 25 plug-ins, which allow for the use of more search engines, as well as other popular Web sites ranging from CNN to On your local drive, Sherlock can find content within HTML and Adobe Acrobat documents.

(There are hints that Apple is aiming to make Sherlock an easy-to-use front-end for consumers wanting to shop over the Internet.)

At Apple's recent Worldwide Developers' Conference, the company demoed that version's Sherlock II, with company vice-president Avie Tevanian suggesting "no one will want to shop on the Internet any other way."

With the Mac OS and Microsoft Windows resembling one another more and more, it should perhaps be no surprise that Microsoft also has a modest operating system upgrade for your attention.

As I write, Windows 98 Second Edition (aka W98SE) has been shipped to manufacturing. It should be available about the time this column appears. Like Apple's update, it's designed as a set of modest improvements to last year's version, in this case, Windows 98.

Like Apple, Microsoft is making the software available in a couple of low- cost ways to current owners of Windows 98. You can receive it as a Service Pack which is freely downloadable from or on CD for about $30. Unlike Apple, Microsoft is also putting W98SE directly into stores. The full version, aimed at owners of Windows 95 or 3.1, sells for about $150 or the same price as the original Windows 98.

Included in the second edition are the various Windows 98 improvements that were made freely obtainable following that version's release. They include: Internet Explorer 5 and Direct X 6.2, along with a collection of bug fixes and drivers. Device Bay, a slow-to-catch on hardware standard aimed at making it easier to swap drives and other devices, Firewire and cable and ADSL modems are also all supported.

The biggest new feature will be for work and home small network users: SE's Internet Connection Sharing allows multiple computers on a network to share a single Internet account, though this is already available as proxy server or gateway software, from other vendors.

Other additions also of interest to network users include: tighter security for Virtual Private Networking, Wake-on-LAN to automatically turn on suspended computers by sending signals across the network, and improvements to high-speed ATM (no, not the bank machine) networking support.

These new features aren't included in the freely downloadable Service Pack, only in the CD upgrade or full versions.

Like Apple, Microsoft has more ambitious plans. Microsoft has distributed hundreds of thousands of copies of Windows 2000 Beta 3, with release expected late this year or next. Despite the name, this is not an evolution of Windows 95/98, but rather the next version of the company's NT operating system aimed primarily at corporate servers and desktops. Company president Steve Ballmer suggested we could expect a major upgrade of the Win95/98 series, informally being referred to as Consumer Windows, for the end of 2000.

These spring upgrades are nice, but neither is a must-have. If you're ordering new hardware, you may want to make sure it includes the latest operating system version.

Next week, we'll look at both companies' longer term plans for your desktops: OS X and Windows 2000, respectively. *

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan