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    Apple's Panther increasingly running ahead of the OS pack

    by  Alan Zisman (c) 2004 First published in Business in Vancouver  May 18-24, 2004; issue #760, High Tech Office column

    The Windows world is on hold, with Microsoft's next-generation Longhorn replacement for 2001's Windows XP not expected until some time in 2006.

    Meanwhile, over in Apple-land, Macintosh users are already well into their next generation. The company's dramatically different OS X is over three years old, and its Panther 10.3 version represents its fourth major revision. OS X broke with Apple's legacy operating system code, replacing it with a more stable, more secure Unix base. But while Unix has rightly been known as system software only a dedicated computer user could love, Apple has covered it over with Aqua, a colourful user interface that lets mere mortals get their work done in stylish fashion without needing to be aware of their computer's industrial-strength guts.

    Each version of OS X software code has been more finely tuned; as a result, Panther runs faster than earlier editions, even on older hardware. (At least on hardware with plenty of RAM and hard drive space). Moreover, each new version of OS X has done a better job of allowing Macs to get along with Windows; Panther-powered Macs can easily connect to shared folders on Windows networks and can share their own files with a single click of a button. It's easier than ever for Mac users to print to shared Windows printers (though there's still room for improvement here).

    Most of the major applications available for the Mac now have native OS X versions; Microsoft Office, Adobe's graphics programs, Quark Xpress, Quicken and Quickbooks, and lots more run natively under OS X. Old-style Mac applications generally work fine running in OS X's "classic" mode, and if a user really needs to run software that's only available for Windows, there's Virtual PC (recently purchased by Microsoft), a program that boots a PC operating system in a window on the Mac desktop.

    While no computer system is 100 per cent secure, OS X's Unix underpinnings are built on solid foundations, and Apple has released security patches as needed. Moreover, virus writers and hackers have tended to aim for the mass numbers of Windows users. As a result, there are currently no viruses infecting OS X systems.

    None. Nada. Zero.

    Each successive version of OS X has run faster, played nicer with Windows networks and included additional features. The downside of this rapid evolution has been that adopters have been hit with a more or less annual $149 cost to keep up to date. Most have felt, however, that the improvements have made it worth paying this unofficial subscription fee.

    And sales of Macintosh computers suffer from a perception that they are under-powered and expensive. Ads show entry-level Macs running at 1.2 Ghz with prices starting at $1,299, while Windows PCs running at double the speed seem to cost $799 or so. As we saw in BIV 756, it's hard to compare computers on processor speed alone; even Intel is no longer advertising its CPUs by the increasingly meaningless clock speed. And Macs appear more expensive because they pack more features; compare fully equipped name brand PCs and Macs and the apparent PC price advantage shrinks.

    Sales of Macs have held steady at about 3 million a year. Don't expect to be able to run OS X on your existing stockpile of PC hardware, but in combining Unix stability with style, Apple has produced an operating system that arguably packs more punch and more usability than anything else currently available.

    All that and no viruses. Think about it.

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