Os8: Almost As Easy As Windows

For a true advance in operating systems, Mac users may have to wait for Rhapsody

The woman demonstrating Apple Computer's newest operating system, OS8, voiced a familiar Mac fanatic's refrain: "How many years will it take for Windows to catch up with Mac OS8 and then call it revolutionary?" But even the faithful at the recent Mac World Expo in Boston could not work up much of a response. The fact is that Windows, which once shamelessly imitated features of the Apple desktop, has stopped being a copycat. Indeed, rather than waiting for features that are new to OS8, such as the ability to launch a program while copying a long file, people who use Windows 95 can already do that.

SALVAGE JOB. OS8, released in August, is a well-done update of the Mac's basic operating software. However, it shows how far behind the Mac has fallen. Its shortcomings will persist until Apple brings out an all-new operating system, code-named Rhapsody, next year. And despite Apple's new cooperation with Microsoft, the long wait makes it tough for those people who use Macs or might want to buy one.

Many of OS8's features were salvaged from the wreckage of Copland, which was planned to be a major overhaul of the operating system but was abandoned last year. The most significant changes wound up being subtle. For example, clicking the mouse on an icon while holding down the control key brings up a menu of possible actions. The exact list of choices depends on whether the icon represents a folder, a program, a document, a printer, or another device. However, the two-handed operation is somewhat more cumbersome than the Windows approach of merely clicking the appropriate mouse button.

Other usability features adapted from Windows include menus that stay open once clicked even if the mouse button is released. A button on each window reduces it to a title bar on the desktop. You can use any picture or graphic as the background for your computer screen. One handy, original touch is spring-open folders. When you drag a file onto a folder, the folder automatically pops open.

REBOOT BLUES. What was added doesn't make up for what was left out. The much-improved Finder, the Mac's desktop manager, can now do several chores simultaneously. But this multitasking ability is well behind that offered by Windows 95 and far inferior to Windows NT, which increasingly is the Mac's real competition in the high-end graphics markets that Apple has long owned. Worse for Apple, a new 5.0 version of NT will include typographic and color-control features that will greatly enhance Windows' publishing capabilities. And NT 5.0 may beat Rhapsody to market.

System stability is a serious issue for OS8. The failure of a single program will usually force a reboot, perhaps with data lost in the process. Windows 95 usually lets you close down just the unruly program, and NT, while not bulletproof, is extremely stable. Again, Mac owners will have to wait for Rhapsody to gain Windows-caliber crash protection.

The upgrade itself is straightforward on Macs using the PowerPC or 68040 processor. (OS8 won't run on older machines.) I installed OS8 without a hitch on a Power Computing PowerCenter Pro 210, though an old, and much modified, Power Mac 6100 needed help from a Mac expert. At about $85, OS8 is a very worthwhile upgrade. However, don't expect it to leave your Windows-using friends drooling with envy.

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