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I am writing this column with Apple Computer Inc.’s “TextEdit” program, one of the free applications that Apple bundles with its new OS X Public Beta. For the uninitiated, OS X is a unique public test of Apple’s next operating system, which will finally oust the trusty operating system that has come with every Mac since 1984. Why OS X? While the Mac OS, Apple’s crown jewel, has been treated to tweaks and improvements over the years, it has lagged behind other modern systems in memory protection and overall strength. Macs might feel more modern than the early versions (and have certain advantages over Windows machines), but it’s an illusion resting on a creaky infrastructure. Apple knows it, and has been trying to come up with a new OS for years. But the old Apple, with its anarchic management and dumb marketing, couldn’t pull it off. Its failure led to one of the most remarkable business stories of the past decade — the return of Steve Jobs and the resurgence of Apple (notwithstanding a recent slide in share prices), helped by millions of funky, translucent iMacs, iBooks, G3s and G4s. At the same time, Microsoft Corp., whose operating systems run nine out of 10 PCs, has been trying to move past its DOS legacy. Most people think of Microsoft as a company with a laser-like focus. But when it comes to its pre-eminent piece of software, Windows, Microsoft’s gotten a little fuzzy these days. Windows 95 brought a new standard of ease of use to historically hard-to-use PCs, but subsequent updates have been incremental and less-than overwhelming. Windows 98 amounted to a bug fix, while NT and its successor, 2000, are full-strength and modern, but their use is mostly confined to big business. Microsoft’s latest release, ME (officially Millennium Edition, unofficially “me” as in “me, myself, and I”) is intended for home use and small offices — anywhere computers aren’t part of a big local area network. It marks the end of most DOS prompts and adds some multimedia capabilities. Is it worth the pain of an upgrade? We decided to take a look at Windows ME and OS X, from installation to basic features. Windows ME will be installed on most PCs as of this month. But based on the early press, you won’t see millions lining up to buy upgrades. Keep in mind that OS X is only a beta release. It exists for Mac professionals and the merely curious to take an early look at the future of the Macintosh, and in some ways, the future of computing. OS X, which Apple says it will release early next year, is based on industrial-strength UNIX, just like the other upstart, Linux. Let the showdown begin. WINDOWS ME Maybe Microsoft should have called ME “Multimedia Edition.” It looks as though the company’s focus groups and feedback bulletin boards told it that most home and So/Ho PC owners use their computers to listen to MP3 files and watch movies. If you look in the “Documents” folder on the hard drive, the two pre-existing sub-folders are for music and movies. And Microsoft included some Beck music clips to groove by. A confession: My experience probably won’t be like yours. I work for a publishing company, and asked our IT department to set up a Windows PC for me to perform the installation. So I got the use of a professional-strength Dell with tons of memory and the support of a platoon of IT professionals (thanks, guys!). That said, once the Dell was up and running, it was a relative cinch to install Windows ME over 98. It took 39 minutes from start to finish, and required only occasional attention as it went through the set-up process. Along the way, I got to see an assortment of happy, young models smiling at their PC monitors with brilliant white teeth as the screen flashed promises to make my multimedia life easier and more complete with Windows ME. Every now and then, I noticed some flashes of the old days, such as messages telling me that “Windows ME is now initializing its driver database.” Whatever. Then the set-up program restarted the PC. Once. Twice. Several times. Finally, I was in business, setting up my e-mail account and exploring the video editing program, Movie Maker. I noticed the set-up documents folders; the colors seemed a little brighter; but all in all, it looks like the Windows you know. One useful new feature: a system restore feature that will let you boot up from an earlier version of your system if a later software installation causes any corruption or damage on the current one. But there’s not all that much more to report. Look to the next Windows iteration for anything truly different. After punting with this release, Microsoft says the next one will be a consumer version of the industrial-strength 2000 Windows. As for stability, I tried my best to get the PC to misbehave. But then, having around 200 MB of memory will go a long way toward preventing system crashes. The verdict: Nothing really new except for some multimedia flourishes. If you don’t need to, don’t bother, though you’ll get it with most new PCs. OS X I got my OS X Beta CD from the Apple Store early on a Friday morning. I decided to live dangerously and install it on my 400 MHz PowerBook, circa 1999. But I didn’t live too dangerously: I had previously backed up the contents of the hard drive. Then I restarted from the OS X CD and held my breath. The Mac looked different from startup, and launched into the installation program. Only 15 minutes later, the installer was finished. The computer restarted and I saw the familiar “Happy Mac” face. But a colorful spinning CD icon had temporarily replaced the arrow head cursor. Within moments, an assistant launched and asked me some questions about my computer and network setup. It was easy enough for me to answer them, but I have to plead an unfair advantage — I used to be a computer systems administrator. The assistant finished and I was surfing the Net in seconds. I started to look around, and my old Mac had been taken over by a usurper. It still had an Apple on the menu bar, but it was shiny and blue, stayed in the middle and didn’t do anything when I clicked on it. (For you PC people, the Apple menu is sort of like the Start box. Sort of.) My control strip, which gave me easy access to sound and monitor settings, among other things, was gone. And looking at the files on my hard drive was disorienting. Instead of opening multiple windows to browse, I had to use this browser-like interface that after awhile, seemed the most natural thing in the world to use. Instead of the control strip, I saw the “Dock” on the bottom. It’s similar to the Windows task bar, except that it’s iconic, with the name of the document or application popping up when you pass the mouse cursor over it. When you start up a program, instead of seeing a startup splash screen, you see the icon bob up and down as though it’s vying for your attention. Apple includes an e-mail program that works well enough and is easy for any Outlook Express user to suss out. And you can use your old “classic” Mac apps, too. When you double-click on one of them, there’s the somewhat unnerving spectacle of seeing the old Mac OS starting up in a small window. I began to think that while this was interesting, I needed to do some real work. I started up the editing program we use here and it started up but refused to log me in. I tweaked some network settings, but no go. Luckily, OS X Beta lets you switch back and forth between X and OS 9. When I restarted with OS 9, my PowerBook returned to normal. The verdict: still a work in progress, and needs fine-turning. Some device drivers that communicate with printers and real applications would be nice, too. But the core system works well already and shows that Apple is still thinking about the person-machine interface in a creative way.

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