A new season of fruitfulness has begun

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The Independent Culture
Despite the recent turmoil at Apple, its core markets appear safe. The users and developers David Fox saw at last week's Apple Expo in London believe the company is back on track, thanks to the successful release of its fast, stable, new OS8 operating system.

With the fast, mid-range machines being launched today, and the ease with which Macs can now operate in a Windows world, Apple is "getting smarter and recognising that it needs to target niche markets to get back to profitability," believes Peter Harris, an Iomega sales manager. He thinks it will succeed, thanks to the loyalty of existing users and some very good technology. Iomega launched a new Zip Plus drive at the Expo which comes with both SCSI and Parallel ports allowing one version to work with any Mac or PC, as it is so often used for interchanging files. Because "Mac users have lots of graphics files", he says they are more interested in removable drives than typical PC users, which is why Apple is including Zip drives in its latest Macs.

The new era of cross-platform openness was underlined by Microsoft. Office 98, which will become available in the new year, looks like a genuine Mac program. Its developers worked with Apple on OS8 to ensure better integration.

Although it showed a pre-Beta version, it is reportedly already very stable, with lots of neat touches, including an animated Classic Mac overseeing the help functions. Some of its features haven't yet been seen on Windows, such as the ability to auto-correct mistakes across words and intelligent error messages in Excel which also suggest possible corrections. Much has been made of Microsoft's five-year commitment to the Mac, but given that its products are used on 90 per cent of Macs, it is too big a market to ignore.

Much of the software on show is now available in Mac and Windows versions, although creative software such as the new QuarkXpress 4.0 works better on the Mac. MetaCreations, which produces graphics software such as Painter, now puts both Windows and Mac versions on a single CD-ROM, as in its new Art Dabbler - a pounds 40 digital artists' studio for animated cartoons or turning photos into artwork.

All Claris products already run on Windows 3.11, 95 and NT as well as the Mac, and James Silcock, marketing manager at Claris UK, sees this as the main growth area, as many companies want the same office or database software for all users. Its next releases will also have both versions on a single CD-ROM.

The new release of FileMaker Pro (which sells more on Windows than the Mac) allows databases to be put on the Web "in less than five minutes", says Silcock. It copes with graphics and moving images, and when linked to the new Claris HomePage 3.0 (out in January) Web sites can automatically be updated as the database is changed. It can also convert Excel files to full databases in a single click, which Microsoft Access can't do.

Its new ClarisWorks Office is a slimline competitor for Microsoft Office, which it now resembles, with chunkier toolbars and a very Word-like text ruler. These innovations make it more attractive on higher-resolution Mac monitors. Good ideas include easily-created hyperlinks between documents, such as tables of contents which bring you direct to the relevant material, and simple-to-create Web pages. The spreadsheet module is easier and allows complex equations to be assembled from pull-down menus. However, some help functions haven't been properly updated, there were problems running find-and-replace macros and it is still impossible to set a default font, although the preferences window implies this can be done.

Also making its first appearance was Apple's next operating system, Rhapsody, due for release next year. Based on a variant of Unix, the interface is little different from the OS8. "Considering the time they've had, it's remarkable how quickly it's progressed," says Kevin McLellan, senior developer at P&L Systems, which aims to have the first Rhapsody spreadsheet, Mesa, on the market. The move to Rhapsody should be relatively simple for most developers, thanks to CodeWarrior Latitude, which automatically translates applications from the Mac to various Unix systems.

Metrowerks also has a new version (CodeWarrior Professional release 2) of its Mac-to-Windows application, which makes it far easier for developers to create versions for both systems, although they will have to redesign the user interface for each version.

Rhapsody should simplify cross-platform development, as it will run on Intel machines. This is the main attraction for Yonadev Yuval, technical director of Oxford-based Softpress Systems. "For a small developer like us, it opens up the market for very little cost," he says. At the Expo, Softpress launched probably the easiest Web-creation tool yet. Freeway allows users to create sophisticated Web pages without needing to know HTML. A 30-day trial version can be downloaded from www.softpress.com.

Be showed the latest version of its operating system, which some users wish Apple had chosen instead of buying NeXT. Although BeOS won't be finished until next Spring, when it will also be available for Intel PCs, the new pre-release version 2 seems fast and stable, with an improved interface and better multi-tasking. It can now write as well as read Mac and DOS disks, but it still has a lot to do. However, as PowerPC users could run both the Mac and BeOS on one hard disk, it may prove useful for graphics applications or the Web.

Apple launches a range of machines today based on the new G3 PowerPC processor, which it claims "is approximately 30 per cent faster than the Pentium II chip." It is also usable for notebook computers, unlike the Pentium II which uses too much power. The systems are aimed at multimedia and web production markets, featuring increased internal bus speed (to 66 MHz) and with OS8 installed. They've been redesigned for ease of access to components, and their internal handles simplify opening. All the new machines use a common motherboard, which should help Apple meet demand better than it usually does.