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It's been nearly five years since Microsoft released its latest default operating system, XP. What has the company wrought since then? Not much, it seems. Other than two service pack releases (including the major SP2 release in 2004) and less dramatic security improvements, XP is still the same turn of the century operating system it was five years ago.
Apple, however, has been a lot more active in upgrading the Mac's operating system. The company came out with Mac OS X in 2001, but the system has received four major upgrades since. The latest version of OS X, Tiger, for example, claims 200 improvements and changes over its immediate predecessor, Panther (OS X 10.3).
And more improvements are on the way.
The next edition of the Mac OS, Leopard, will contain built-in support for Intel hardware - and in fact, according to http://tinyurl.com/jffet, Intel will be intimately involved in development of several aspects of Leopard to give the OS maximum ability to take control of Intel's next-generation multi-core processors (called Conroe). As I mentioned, the current dual-core Intel based Mac with not so optimized OS software is already a speed demon. One could just imagine how fast a fully optimized operating system running on as many as 16 cores will run, as the site describes. Leopard will also easily support and enhance the performance of a host of soon to come Apple devices - like the iPhone, which will combine the best of third generation cell phone features with the music power of an iPod (http://tinyurl.com/eoahr), with the device's release dovetailing with the expected release of Leopard, at the end of 2006 or the beginning of 2007. As mentioned last week, a portion of the Leopard code - that supporting installation of Windows XP on Intel-based Macs - has already been released.
Getting back to Windows, Microsoft's long-lived XP is due for a major upgrade in early 2007 as well, as the company releases Vista, the next generation of Windows.
Vista gives a much-needed shakeup to what has become a staid interface, and will include Aero, a new user interface with fancy visual display tricks, such as providing see-through desktop visual elements, desktop "gadgets" that put "simple, specialized, and lightweight mini-applications that put information and tasks at your fingertips-no matter what you're doing," such as weather gadgets that you can call up with a single keystroke (http://tinyurl.com/d3d9y). The gadgets will sit in a "sidebar," where they will await being pressed into service.
The Vista Media Center "will allow you to enjoy all your favorite entertainment - including live and recorded TV, movies, music, and pictures - in one place through an easy-to-use Media Center menu system and remote control" (http://tinyurl.com/oe8c2). And MS promises that the new OS will be efficient - so efficient, in fact, that loading Vista will be a super fast experience, with the time from when you wake up your computer to the time you're ready to work spanning no more than two or three seconds (http://tinyurl.com/l2pss)! If you're so inclined, you can download a preview version of Vista right now, at http://tinyurl.com/zc3ya.
So there you have a brief and certainly incomplete synopsis of the changes coming in OS X and Windows. Not all features have been announced, and often part of the project gets shelved or postponed as part of the initial release in order to get to market by a certain deadline (like the holiday gifting season in November and December, although it appears MS is going to miss the big buying season this year (http://tinyurl.com/l7uw2). As far as Leopard is concerned, Apple has announced a release date of late 2006 or early 2007, but the company has in the past made a number of important product releases in time for shoppers to lay down their money during the height of the buying season.
The question of which system to go with, if you were in the market for a new computer, would have been a moot one; traditional Windows users - whose documents, applications, and orientation were of the MS world - would have bought a new Windows box with the included Windows OS (one can assume that Microsoft will continue to distribute OEM versions of its operating system), while Mac users would have moved onto the next OS and possibly the next model of Mac.
But the release of the Intel Macs throws that whole upgrade model into flux - suddenly, you can have it all, with Intel Macs capable of running Windows OS (one can assume Boot Camp will be upgraded to run Vista when the time comes).
If a user who needed Windows could have the best of both systems, for a similar amount of money, of course, would they go with the Mac? They might, if they could be convinced that there was something they could get with the Intel Mac that they couldn't get with the Wintel PC, in terms of performance, quality or ability to perform. And while it's too soon to say with certainty at this point because not all features have been announced on both platforms, it seems as if Leopard is already a step ahead of Vista - because Vista has adopted features current in OS X 10.4, which will, upon the release of Leopard, become an "old" operating system.
In fact, all of the "cutting edge" Vista features mentioned above, and a host of others, are already available in OS X 10.4 and, indeed, have been available in previous OS X versions. Screenshots of Aero look suspiciously like OS X's Aqua; gadgets look suspiciously like OS X's Widgets (and the sidebar looks a lot like the OS X widget dock); the Intel Macs already come with a remote control to turn the machine into an entertainment center; and they also start up in a remarkably short amount of time (about three seconds or so). If Vista were ready for prime time right now, this piece would be about the merits of the two on their respective features and user benefits.
But I can't write about that, because in the OS wars, Apple is clearly ahead - and is likely to stay that way unless there's a bunch of stuff Microsoft hasn't revealed about Vista yet (which is certainly possible).
But although Apple also has deliberately kept a lot of Leopard's features a secret as well - even though there are plenty of rumors (http://tinyurl.com/q7oob) - based on past patterns of OS releases (remember "200 new features in OS X 10.4"), one could assume that the new system will be significantly different - and better - than the current one.
Meanwhile, with Vista, Microsoft will be fighting a battle against a ghost OS X of the past. What will this mean to the Mac's market share? Maybe nothing, but consumers are a funny lot - they want as much for their money as possible, and if they can get two great computers while paying for just one, they might go for Intel Macs with Leopard and Vista in a big way.
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