Operating Systems

April 1996


Operating Systems

With the shine fading from Apple, buyers turn attention to Windows.

Federal computer users may eventually have fewer operating systems from which to choose if Apple Computer continues its downward slide. The 19-year-old, $11 billion company-whose easy-to-use Macintosh operating system became the model against which all others were judged-has lost its technological edge and is quickly filling its ledger sheets with red ink. Major competition from Microsoft's Windows, which sports a graphical-user interface and other nifty Macintosh features, has seriously eroded Apple's market share.

Apple's decline has buyers concerned about future availability of software for the operating system. Some users already are having difficulty finding some of their favorite Mac programs. Although Apple has a loyal band of users, particularly in the areas of graphics and multimedia, many have started moving to Windows. Sales of Macintosh programs dropped more than 15 percent last year, according to the Software Publishers Association. And with the Macintosh upgrade, Copland, now not due until next summer, many more users are expected to turn their attention to Windows.

Windows Wars. The question is which Windows? Microsoft offers the choice of its user-friendly Windows 95 or its high-end Windows NT. Some users are starting with Win95 with plans to migrate to the more powerful NT. Others are jumping straight to NT. Still others are booting up both operating systems.

Windows 95 was introduced last summer amid much fanfare. The new operating system, which is an upgrade to Microsoft's popular Windows 3.1, features a graphical architecture and built-in networking protocols. It features Object Linking & Embedding, for easier exchange of data among different software programs, and Dynamic Data Exchange, which creates electronic links between files.

Although federal sales of Windows 95 have been good, they have fallen short of Microsoft's expectations. One reason is that the new program still is not completely debugged, thus increasing the possibility of system crashes when running sophisticated applications. Another reason: The program is what computer programmers call a resource hog, requiring almost as much memory as Windows NT.

But unlike NT, Windows 95 only runs on computers containing Intel microprocessors. NT, on the other hand, supports machines running Intel or the powerful RISC (reduced-instruction set computing) chips, such as PowerPC from Apple/IBM/Motorola, Alpha from Digital Equipment Corp. and MIPS from Silicon Graphics.

Three-year-old Windows NT is a 32-bit operating system that can run DOS, Windows and OS/2 applications. Microsoft hopes to make the system more user friendly this summer when it introduces NT 4.0, an upgrade that will incorporate a graphical user interface. The new system will feature Exchange Client, an enhanced e-mail in-box into which mail, faxes and Internet messages can be deposited for quick retrieval through a single window. An object-oriented upgrade to NT, known as Cairo, has been delayed until next year.

The stable infrastructure and advanced data-security features of Windows NT make it ideal for distributed systems. The client-server version of the operating system, NT Server, is compliant with POSIX (portable operating system interface exchange), the federally mandated standard interface between applications programs and operating systems. As a result, Windows NT has started to challenge the Unix operating system in the server market.

Unix. Twenty-year-old Unix is an open operating system, meaning it enables dissimilar computers to exchange information and run each other's software. Although Windows NT is easier to configure and use, Unix offers advanced security tools and more than 10,000 software applications. NT offers only about 1,500. For that reason, Unix is still the top choice when it comes to enterprise computing.

Since Unix can run on all varieties of nonproprietary computers, it is ideal for agencywide databases, client-server networks, Internet servers and on-line transaction processing systems. But the problem is that there are at least two dozen incompatible versions of the operating system, thus making it difficult for users to port applications from one Unix system to another.

Progress was recently made on this front when Hewlett-Packard and Santa Cruz Operation agreed to merge three versions of Unix to create a standard. And in an effort to consolidate Unix software development, two industry consortiums-Open Software Foundation and X/Open-have merged into one entity called Open Group.

OS/2 Warp. Developments on the Windows and Unix fronts have overshadowed anything IBM has done in the last year to resuscitate sales of its beleaguered OS/2. Availability of software designed to work on the operating system is so poor that IBM has started paying companies to develop OS/2 programs in key areas such as database management. The company also is providing software developers with tools for converting Windows programs into OS/2 applications.

IBM recently introduced OS/2 Warp for the PowerPC, which is the first version of the operating system to run on RISC chips. This month the company is expected to unveil Warp Server, which will combine Warp with IBM's LAN Server network operating system. An upgrade for the desktop version of Warp-code named Merlin-is due this summer. But it is uncertain whether these announcements can pump life into the ailing operating system.

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