Windows XP, Vista, and 7 vs. McIntosh … Again

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by Mike Elliott

There are several key times during a year when computer companies know they have a better than usual chance to bring in the cash. We’ve just been through a big one as students (and more likely parents) and teachers purchase new computers in preparation for the new school year. Another will follow in just another month or two—the feast of economic feasts called Christmas shopping season.

It will happen. New computers will be configured and old computers will be neglected, some relegated to the role of a doorstop.

And again this year, we’ll likely rekindle the big Mac vs. PC debate as we try to decide which way to go. Ever since the “1984 Commercial” that aired on national TV during the Super Bowl in January 1984 and introduced the original Macintosh, we’ve had the makings of a top-tier rivalry.

The 1984 TV spot, an eerie, but ground-breaking effort as commercials go, was modeled on the theme of the classic “1984” story by George Orwell. It depicted IBM/Microsoft in the role of the over-bearing Government and Apple as the savior of the drone-like people. (It’s worth looking up the video on YouTube.com if you’re into that kind of thing. I sure am.) From that time on, we’ve had an on-going battle of one-upmanship between Apple, leading the way with revolutionary technology and feature enhancements, and Microsoft, which has arguably been playing catch-up, although Microsoft has always enjoyed a massive market share advantage, largely due to corporate customers.

Apple is reported to have gained market share during the present tough recession. Personally, I’ve used every major version of each company’s operating systems since 1983, when my first PC had PC-DOS 1.1, and have fond memories of each (along with a number of annoyances). The sole exception to this is that I bypassed Windows/ME—a technically minor update to Windows 98 largely seen as a “marketing release” targeting those fearing the turn-of-the-century rollover from 1999 to 2000—Y2K, if you recall. I think it’s safe to say I didn’t miss much!

In preparation for the two big windfall sales periods mentioned above, Microsoft is revving its massive marketing engine espousing the benefits of their latest version of Windows, called Windows 7 (or what I think of as the second coming of Vista). That product has just been finalized and has begun its production journey into manufacturing. It is expected to hit store shelves this month.

Meanwhile, Apple has wrapped up the next version of Mac OS X, called “Snow Leopard,” which continues to make gains in popularity and more importantly, market share—although it’s only available for those purchasing a new Apple Macintosh computer or those upgrading existing Macintoshes. Among the many things Apple has done well over the years, a fairly high-ranking one is their ability to maintain strict control over the primary hardware on which their operating systems can run. This goes in stark contrast to the PC, which was cloned early on, most notably by Compaq (now part of HP) and PCs Limited (now Dell), and now just about anyone who wants to cobble the parts together to make a PC. This gives the developers at Apple a distinct advantage over competitors since their company also designs and manufactures the only computers that can run Mac OSX (legally and largely technically). They control what parts go in them, giving them a far simpler range of test configurations. Microsoft got into business by allowing multiple hardware vendors to run their operating system, pretty much the opposite of Apple. Outside of its XBox business (more in a moment), and a stab at computers, Microsoft has stayed out of the computer manufacturing business. They realized early on (initially in their relationship with IBM to supply DOS for the IBM PC), that making software seemed to have better returns … you spend a hefty up-front cost to develop it, but your manufacturing and distribution costs don’t come close to those for computer system makers.

However, if you have a software platform that’s compelling enough to significantly impact your hardware selection, then it might be worth being the company that creates the favorable hardware. Apple has clearly succeeded with the Macintosh computer and Microsoft has taken a similar approach in developing the XBox game console.

But back to the point, I wonder what impact these new operating systems might have on purchase decisions when it comes to choosing between the Mac (Apple OS X) or a PC (Microsoft Windows)? From all reports, “Snow Leopard” is primarily an architectural upgrade … more under-the-hood improvements to take advantage of recent hardware advances than user-interface overhauls or new applications, although I’m sure it won’t disappoint for the low price of $30 for the upgrade.

Microsoft, on the other hand, is betting a lot of marbles on the makeover they’ve applied to Windows 7. Three big things plagued Vista when it was first released: first, a computer running Windows Vista was found to be significantly slower than an identical machine running Windows XP. Second, the considerable changes to the core of Vista (called the kernel) to make it more secure forced the adoption of a new driver model (which meant a lot of hardware wouldn’t work, including some scanners and printers). Third, there were application-compatibility issues that pegged the upgrade as worthy only if one were getting a new machine, although the problems mostly occurred in older applications and security utilities like firewalls and antivirus tools.

With the negative aura surrounding Vista, Microsoft knew they had to break away with something significant—and something that didn’t carry the Vista name forward. And by the advance reports, they’ve succeeded. However, as a Vista user (and a happy one at that) over the last two years, my experimentation with the beta version of Windows 7 has been underwhelming. This is probably due to the fact that I’ve found so many ways (and utilities) to work around areas where Vista suffers deficiencies when compared to Apple’s Mac OS X.

In the coming months, I’ll cover more about both of these new operating systems and let you in on tips I’ve discovered for getting by with what you have!

Until then, please send feedback and suggestions to [email protected]