OS updates 'optional'

by Alan Zisman (c) 1999. First published in Toronto Computes, August 1999

The Macintosh and Windows operating systems both stem from visits made by Apple?s Steve Jobs and Microsoft?s Bill Gates to the Xerox Parc research lab. There, they were able to see then-new technologies like the mouse and now standard user interface features like resizeable windows, icons, and menus.

With the same ancestry, it should be no surprise that these two siblings have been developing on parallel courses ever since, and in recent releases have more and more come to resemble one another.

Now, even their timing of new releases seems to be happening in sync.

Both Apple and Microsoft, for example, seem to be planning late 1999 for major operating system releases?with both OS X and Windows 2000 looking to be big changes that will require many users to upgrade their hardware.

And both companies chose this Spring to release more modest updates to their present mass-market operating systems.

Apple beat Microsoft in releasing OS 8.6. As the number suggests, this is a relatively minor change to OS 8.5, and is available as a free download or $30 CD (www.apple.com/macos)?but only for the approximately 3.6 million Mac owners who are currently using the previous version. At least initially, if you run earlier Mac OS versions, you?ll need to upgrade first to 8.5, and then get the free upgrade to 8.6. (The new version should be shipping, pre-installed, on new Macs by the time you read this).

The most talked-about new feature in OS 8.5 was the Sherlock search engine?offering speedy hard drive searches combined with natural language searching a variety of Web sites. The upgrade lets you search the content of HTML pages and Adobe Acrobat PDF documents stored on your local drives. As well, it adds over 25 more Sherlock plug-ins (most available separately), adding the ability to search Amazon.com, CNN Interactive, Rolling Stone, and more. (There?s talk that Apple would like to make Sherlock the easiest way to comparison-shop on the Web?with Apple getting a commission from each resulting purchase).

Powerbook owners will be pleased to get improvements of up to 37% in their computers? battery life, along with the ability to use popular cell phone models from Ericsson, Nokia, and more for wireless email and Web connections.

DVD-RAM, USB and Firewire device support is improved. The newest version of Macintosh Runtime for Java is included (also available separately). Enhancements to Apple?s Game Sprockets technology should make the Mac more appealing to game developers. Finally, hidden ?under the hood? improvements allow Apple to promise improved system stability.

As I write, Microsoft?s next-generation release of Windows 98 has been sent to manufacturing but has not yet officially hit the streets?it should be available as you read this.

Windows 98 Second Edition, like OS 8.6, is a relatively minor upgrade to the previous version?in this case, Windows 98. Like Apple?s upgrade, it will be offered as an easy upgrade to current users?either a free download (lacking the new features) or a cheap CD. Unlike OS 8.6, Microsoft has also announced plans to sell a full version that can be used by current Win 3.1 or Win95 owners to upgrade to the latest version?for the same price as the existing Windows 98 version.

Like Apple?s new version, W98SE promises updates in hardware support?in this case, Firewire, Device Bay, and cable and ADSL modems. And all the bug and security fixes that have been made available to Win98 users via the Windows Upgrade feature, along with other downloadable features like Internet Explorer 5 and the latest DirectX version.

The big new feature will be of most interest to users with home and small business networks?Internet Connection Sharing. Like proxy server or gateway software available from a number of other companies, ICS lets multiple users on a small network share a single Internet connection?whether a dial-up connection, or a networked connection via a cable or ADSL modem. When installed, networked machines can all connect to the Internet via the IP address of a single, connected host-machine?forcing that machine to dial-in, if required.

Bigger business networks will welcome improvements to Virtual Private Networking, tightened encryption, improved high-speed ATM networking support, and Wake-on-LAN, allowing the network to revive ?sleeping? workstations.

Both these upgrades promise nice enhancements, but nothing vital for most users. If you?re getting a new system, you should make sure you get the latest operating system version already installed. If you have need for some of the new features?the enhancements to Sherlock or Internet Connection Sharing, for example?then be sure to get a copy. But if your current system is working as advertised, upgrading to OS 8.6 or Windows 98 Second Edition should be considered strictly optional.

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