Charles Arthur: 'Can Panther fit into a Windows-dominated world?'

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The Independent Online

The other evening my brother came to visit, and was telling me about his unofficial job as the computer administrator for his friends and family. A number had asked him recently to "have a look" because their machines were running slowly. When he investigated, he found the cause: viruses such as MS Blaster. He'd even been hitby the virus himself.

We had a stab at getting a Windows machine to join my home network. An hour later, we gave up, having repaired network connections until we were blue in the face and run enough wizards for Harry Potter's sports day. This may seem a roundabout way of approaching the subject of the new version of Apple's operating system, called "Panther" (more prosaically numbered 10.3; it began at 10.0.0 in March 2001). But to me it illustrates the tasks that we generally have to deal with in the modern computing world: viruses, junk and networks. It also illustrates the problems that most people take as granted: machines won't run, junk abounds, and getting two machines to talk to each other requires letters after your name.

In that light, Panther comes over like a whole new operating system - which in many ways it is. Much of the interface has been refined, and revised, including new ways of working such as "Exposé", which moves all the windows open on your screen into non-overlapping tiles, so you can move between applications in a moment.

There are two reviews online already: The Independent had the UK exclusive, and after testing it on a number of machines, there's no doubt it's a big improvement on 10.2, or "Jaguar", as its predecessor - released last August - was named. (You can find the reviews at Suffice to say that it's a worthwhile upgrade. But beyond that, how does Apple, with Panther, fit into a world that is dominated by Windows and Microsoft? The answer: very quietly, but very, very thoroughly.

Here are the pieces of the strategy. Apple has made a lot of noise with the launch of iTunes for Windows. It behaves exactly like iTunes on a Mac. It only works with Apple's iPod music player. And that's a small step towards getting "mindshare" among buyers of computers about what their next machine might be. If iTunes doesn't behave like other Windows applications then there's always the possibility people will prefer it. It's slim, but that's what mindshare is about.

Second is the virus question. Microsoft has been taking out full-page newspaper ads, which say "With all the recent news coverage about malicious computer viruses, it can be confusing to know how to protect your PC". It can be, but it would be a lot better if one didn't have to take the steps that Microsoft advises - turn on the firewall that comes with XP (but which was left off by default); download the giant security patches, so you only have to worry about the next security attack; and get antivirus software. The implication is that viruses are a sort of computing Act of God.

Except that since OSX was launched in 2001, there hasn't been a single virus or worm discovered that will infect it. For Windows XP, launched slightly later, we're on to something like 40 updates this year for the operating system and applications. Some say it's because OSX is inherently more secure than Windows (which it is; any user on Windows can mess up the essential registry, as can any arbitrary file they run), some that it's because OSX has fewer users.

Whichever, Apple users are not fretting. Panther, meanwhile, can talk seamlessly to Windows machines, and share and host their files. Apple's publicity material talks about the importance of a "heterogenous network"; it's a blatant, but interesting, pitch to IT managers sick of Windows Updates to try a few Apple updates instead. The idea on Apple's part is that their machines won't cause disruption to IT managers - who are always the people to persuade. In fact, because they won't need virus patching, they'll need less maintenance.

Fourth, Apple is pushing into scientific computing, using its Unix base. Its new G5 machines helped build one of the 10 fastest supercomputers in the world, in an ad-hoc project by Virginia Tech (aka Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University).

Small pieces, each of them. The most interesting possibility would be if Apple offered OSX to run on Intel processors so that people could compare it with Windows side-by-side. However, that would destroy Apple's financial strategy, which is to make money from its hardware sales. It's still about selling computers, not software, even though the software is the reason for buying them.