Apple and Microsoft offer modest OS Upgrades

by Alan Zisman (c) 1999. First published in Canadian Computer Wholesaler, July 1999

One of the founding myths on the personal computing industry involves separate visits by Apple?s Steve Jobs and Microsoft?s Bill Gates to the now-legendary Xerox Parc research centre. There, the story goes, each saw the future in the guise of the Xerox Star?a computer that pioneered the use  mice, menus, and icons?the graphical user interface.

Xerox failed to sell very many of its slow and expensive Stars, but within a few years. Apple and Microsoft went on to popularize its ideas with the Macintosh and Windows.

Apple?s product had a bit of a head-start on Microsoft, and initially, a far superior implementation of a graphical user interface. But Microsoft is nothing if not persistent, and Windows evolved to the point that recent Mac OS versions have been more likely to copy Windows features than the other way around. The two products have come increasingly in synch, with the two companies almost seeming to work towards the same timetables for release dates.

Both companies are gearing up for major operating system releases late in 1999 or early next year with Apple?s OS X and Microsoft Windows 2000 respectively. But in the meantime, each has released a lower-key operating system revision this past spring.

Apple?s OS 8.6 was first off the mark, with a May release, while Microsoft?s Windows 95 Second Edition has, as I write, gone to manufacturing, with actual public release any time soon.

OS 8.6 is an upgrade to Apple?s popular OS 8.5 release of last Fall. In fact, as of this writing, it isn?t available as a full product?the company?s web site still advertises the previous version, suggesting customers with OS 8.5 move up to the OS 8.6 by either downloading the upgrade or ordering it on CD (about $CDN30)?users of previous operating system version have to buy 8.5 and then upgrade to 8.6. New Apple hardware should be coming with the newest version pre-installed by the time you read this.

The new version builds on the previous one, integrating more search sites into the Sherlock find feature, for example. Apple now makes it possible to use it search popular commerce sites like Amazon,com, Barnes and Noble, and Music Boulevard. Game Sprocket technology, also introduced in OS 8.5 has been extended, making it easier for game hardware and software developers to create products for the Mac.

Powerbook users will like the improved power management, and the ability to access the Internet via Nokia and Ericsson IRDA-capable mobile phones. There?s new support for DVD-RAM, and improved support for USB and Firewire hardware. Mac Java support is boosted, with the new version running up to five times faster. AppleScript and ColorSynch have also been improved.

Windows 98 Second Edition (SE)is, as the name suggests, a new and improved version of last year?s Windows 98 (You?d think they might have named it Windows 99). It integrates the various bug fixes and new version of operating system add-ins that have been made available over the past year via the Windows Update feature?and will be worthwhile for users simply for getting all the fixes at one time.

Existing Windows 98 users will be able to download it as a service pack?adding Internet Explorer 5, and the latest versions of Microsoft?s Media Player and Direct X 6.1 all in one (big) download.

A few new features are also being added into Second Edition, but these will not be made part of the free service pack?existing Win98 users will need to order an upgrade CD from Microsoft?again about $CDN 30 (showing how Microsoft and Apple continue to run in synch). Unlike Apple, however, users upgrading from versions earlier than Win98 will be able to get a full upgrade version of SE?for the same price as the previous Win98 upgrade. OEM versions will be available, allowing hardware manufacturers to ship systems with SE pre-installed.

The most obvious new feature is Internet Connection Sharing. This feature is of use only to users with small networks at home or at work, wanting to share a single Internet connection between multiple computers. This could be a traditional dial-up connection, or a faster cable or ADSL connection?in either case, the outside world only sees a single computer connected, but any machine on the network can make use of the Internet connection.

This has been available previously with third-party proxy server or gateway products such as WinGate or webEtc.

Other features include tightened security for Virtual Private Networks and improvements to Dial Up Networking. Support for high-speed ATM networking (no, not the bank machines!) is improved. Hardware support is added for Device Bay, allowing easier swapping of drives, and for Wake-on-LAN, though both features require support from the computer?s BIOS.

Neither OS 8.6 nor Windows 98 Second Edition are must-have products for most end-users. While the bug-fixes in each are worthwhile in themselves,  neither product will generate Midnight-madness lineups outside retailers.

Both show the determination of their makers to keep their operating systems up to date; your customers will be demanding that you include these newest versions with your product lines.

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