Great expectations for XP and OS X

Will the new operating systems from Microsoft and Apple breathe life into a PC industry suffering from falling sales? Well, yes and no
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Typical. You wait years for a radical overhaul of an operating system, and then two come along at once. If you were eager enough, this week you could buy a new PC with Microsoft's latest operating system, Windows XP (officially launched on 25 October). Meanwhile, Apple users can now get a speedier version of its "next-generation" operating system, Mac OS X.

Both companies are aiming to unify their operating system strategies, and dump some 20-year-old code that had been holding them back. They also hope to boost sales of hardware; for Apple, that means better profits, and for Microsoft, more money from licenses. The question is, will it? And are the upgrades worth buying? My own guess is that the medium-term prospects are better for Apple than for Microsoft, interestingly enough because Apple is becoming more internet-based.

Analysts are generally glum about XP's ability to shift new PCs. Last Tuesday Kevin McCarthy, PC sector analyst at Credit Suisse First Boston, lowered his forecast for PC sales "growth" – from a 6 per cent drop to a 14 per cent fall – and suggested "a poor outlook for early acceptance" of Windows XP. "Initial consumer interest [in XP] appears limited," he said in a note to clients.

But what about the software? Will it bring a shine to your life? XP offers no great leap forward like Windows 3.1, nor Windows 95. It's the same, but better.

User reports are mixed. XP rids Windows of the old DOS core that generated lines of text whenever a PC started; now it is a purely graphical interface, with many more bells and whistles – Windows Media Player (Microsoft's proprietary means of playing audio and video content), more built-in plug-and-play to interfaces such as USB and "Firewire" (for digital cameras), and greater stability.

The principal downside is that it continues Microsoft's mission of locking Windows users into its other products, such as the online data repository Passport, Hotmail, Windows Media Player, Microsoft Moviemaker, its proprietary digital video editing program, and Internet Explorer and Outlook Express browser and mail programs. If that bugs you, it's going to be a rough ride. But at least, people agree, XP is more stable than Windows95 or Windows 98, and has quite a pretty face.

Interestingly, nearly all the above comments also apply to Apple's OS X: built-in media player (Quicktime), digital video editor (iMovie), online repository (iTools, with a free account), mail application (Mail, written by Apple). The browser is the ubiquitous Internet Explorer. And OS X also has a pretty face, and it's definitely stable.

The only reason US Justice Department lawyers aren't storming the gates of Apple's headquarters in Cupertino, California, as they do Microsoft, is that Apple has just 4 per cent of the market. So it's hardly a monopoly like Windows. OS X does, though, offer Apple a far greater potential to gain market share, because it moves from the older proprietary Apple OS to one whose heart is a version of Unix – the grandfather of all operating systems (including DOS).

That openness is attracting key applications. If you've watched a cinema film with digital effects lately, you've seen something made using the Maya program. That has now been brought to OS X by its maker, Alias Wavefront, putting Apple head-to-head with Windows NT and Silicon Graphics machines running the same program. Mark Parmenter, Alias Wavefront's UK manager, is certain some existing Maya users on other platforms will shift to Macs – "some of them from NT systems, which they had to use instead of Macs but never really liked".

Other programs are sure to follow; many can be shifted to OS X simply by "recompiling" them – a trivial task for those who want to. OS X also comes with Apache, the most commonly used web server on the Net, built in as standard. Last week the Gartner research group advised companies to drop Microsoft's IIS web server, because of its vulnerability to viruses like Nimda, and shift to something else. Apache was one suggestion. Enterprising Apple salespeople, one might think, would call those companies and suggest they give Apache on OS X a whirl. "It can't hurt," one can imagine them saying.

However, Apple UK's team couldn't, or wouldn't say last week if that is their strategy – although spokesman David Millar said: "Sometimes we can't do everything at once. We're only halfway through the full transition to OS X. But there will be new opportunities once that transition is done. This is just the end of the beginning."


Mac OS X v10.1 is a free upgrade to existing owners of OS X disks; £99 otherwise. Windows XP is expected to cost around £100 for the "Home" version and up to £200 for the "Professional" version