The fight to regain ground lost to Windows 95 has begun with an operating system called Copland. By Cliff Joseph
The huge losses and management shake-ups at Apple Computer have been widely reported. Yet those losses are perhaps the least of Apple's problems. Its new chief executive, Gil Amelio, is probably right when he says that these problems are short-term and "fixable". A greater long- term problem for Apple lies in the loss of its technological lead over its main rival, Microsoft's Windows operating system. The launch last year of Windows 95 took a great bite out of Apple's historical advantage - that its operating system, the Mac OS, was easier to use and more versatile than previous versions of Windows.

Now Apple is fighting back with a new operating system code-named Copland. The new features in Copland fall into two main categories: "architectural" changes within the system's underlying structure, and interface improvements that affect the way the user interacts with the computer.

Many of the architectural changes are long overdue. The original Mac OS was designed for use with Motorola's 68000 series of processors. These are now being phased out and replaced by the PowerPC processors that Apple uses in its new Power Macintosh models. Apple has gradually been rewriting the Mac OS for the PowerPC for about two years, but Copland will be the first version that is written specifically for the PowerPC. This should make it run more efficiently on PowerPC computers, but it also means it will not run on older Macs that still use 68000 processors.

Another break with Apple's past lies in the fact that Copland will run on both Power Macintosh and the PowerPC Platform, a completely new type of computer jointly designed by Apple and IBM. Other manufacturers will be able to produce their own PowerPC Platform computers, and Apple hopes to license the Mac OS to these manufacturers in order to compete with the many PC-clone manufacturers whose computers all use Windows. Copland will also provide "multi-tasking" - the ability to run more than one program at a time - a feature that PCs and Unix computers have had for years.

The Mac's real strength, however, has always been its interface, and this is where most of Copland's new features are concentrated. There is an assortment of cosmetic improvements, such as the Appearance Manager, which allows you to select visual themes for the interface. Kids get an eye-catching version of the interface, with highly coloured windows and icons, while adults can select variations such as a high-tech 3D interface, or a "designer" version with lots of black and chrome.

This ability to customise the computer goes even deeper, with the ability to create "personalities" on the computer. A parent can select a simple personality for their children's use, which restricts them to using specific programs or prevents them from accidentally deleting files by hiding the Wastebasket icon. Other users can select a level of complexity that they feel comfortable with, and each computer will be able to store personalities for up to four different users.

If you are not sure how to perform a certain task, Copland includes a system called the Task Manager. This provides you with a list of common tasks, such as backing up files or checking for viruses, and guides you through them. If you want to set the computer to backup files at the end of the day, the Task Manager will ask you which files you want to select, what time to perform the backup, and whether you want to repeat backup at the same time every day.

Acknowledging Windows' dominance, Copland will also make greater attempts to be compatible with Windows PCs. Features such as QuickDraw 3D, its new 3D graphics system, will run on both Macs and PCs, making it easier for Macs to co-exist alongside PCs in schools and businesses.

Copland does have at least one thing in common with Windows 95, however: it is running late. After three years' work, the company planned to provide software developers with an early version of Copland last month, but this has now been put back, probably until August. Apple hopes the final release will be ready this time next year.

Because of this delay Apple is looking at the possibility of releasing an interim update of the current Mac, which will include those parts of Copland that are already finished. At the same time, work has already begun on the successor to Copland - called Gershwin.

Copland looks like it could preserve Apple's lead in ease of use, but the question now is simply whether it will arrive in time to prevent Windows 95 from eroding Apple's market share even further. It could decide whether or not Apple is still around to unveil Gershwin.