Business in Vancouver: News that works for you

    The big guns are betting that we're still willing to spend on new operating systems

    by Alan Zisman (c) 1996 First published in Business in Vancouver ,  Issue #351 July 16, 1996   High Tech Office  column

    I've said before that operating systems--the basic software that determines how your computer works and gives it whatever passes for its personality--are becoming less and less important these days. If you're doing your word processing using Microsoft Word and exploring the Internet with Netscape Navigator, it hardly matters if you're using a Windows PC or a Mac.

    Nevertheless, system-software developers are preparing a new generation of software, hoping to fill your hard drive and empty your wallet.

    IBM's OS/2 Warp has won the hearts of several million hard-core computer hackers by letting users customize virtually every aspect of their systems. At the same time, it's a solid and stable environment that lets them run DOS and Windows programs as well as native OS/2 software. IBM is currently beta-testing the next generation, code-named Merlin, aiming for release late in the year. Merlin offers even more opportunity for customization, as well as better Internet and network connections. But the big feature is that users can talk to it: not only can they order their software around (which multimedia Mac users have been able to do for a couple of years), but they'll be able to dictate to their word-processing software, using a built-in version of IBM's Voice Type Dictation software.

    Asking your computer to "take a letter" comes at a big price in system resources, however. The current betas require 32 megs of RAM (with IBM aiming for 16 megs in the release version), and a hefty 350 megs of drive space. And make sure you've got at least a 75-MHz Pentium.

    Rival Microsoft is also beta-testing system software. Windows NT comes in two flavours: a server version aiming at replacing Novell Netware on the world's networks, and a desktop version, looking to outperform Unix on power-users' workstations. No cutesy names here: this is serious software. NT is testing version 4.0.

    The big addition here is the Windows 95 look and feel--start button, task bar, Explorer. An Internet server and browser are included in respective versions, but Win 95's Plug and Play and power management haven't survived the translation, making that system the better choice for most notebook users.

    While not as hefty as Merlin, NT 4.0 will still need a minimum of 16 megs of RAM (think 32 megs or more for good performance). Like Merlin, expect NT 4.0 later this year.

    The Windows 96 many had expected is not to be. Instead, Microsoft is releasing a couple of Service Packs, with a few fixes, and a few minor additional features. Look for a Windows 97, however, as Microsoft has decided it will be more than a few years before it can merge its two operating systems.

    Apple's doing it, too. It's been about five years since System 7, so hold on tight for (you guessed it) System 8. Code-named Copland, it's been postponed to mid-'97. It's all in native PowerPC code, meaning that older Macs won't be able to run it, but it promises to deliver at long last stable, preemptive multitasking, at least for the operating system's functions.

    Apple says users will need to wait for another generation of software before being able to fully multitask their programs, however. It does promise a system that will run faster and be more stable, even on systems with a humble 8 megs of RAM. The user interface will be more customizable, and the venerable Finder will now be able to find files not only according to their name, but also according to their content. Look for better integration for multimedia and Internet.

    Despite all this activity from the big players, lots of users may just yawn. The bulk of today's users have managed to ignore the hype and hysteria, and have stuck with what they know works--DOS and Windows 3.1--despite clumsiness and limitations. The big hardware demands of this next generation mean that we won't see too many people upgrading their system software, at least not on their old hardware.

    But as those old machines get passed on down the office hierarchy, most businesses will find themselves with faster, more powerful computers, with RAM and hard-drive space to run one of these soon-to-be-a-contender operating systems... at least unless the network computer changes everything.

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