Will Apples Panther Make a Meal of Microsofts Longhorn?

Opinion: Workspace aids in client, open-source strengths of server offer attractive enterprise value.

I apologize to any readers of these letters who bristled at my critical comment, last week, on the California recall election. I tried to make my intentions clear in the revised version of the column, after receiving several notes protesting what must have seemed like an inappropriate excursion into politics: my focus, I do depose, was strictly on the logic of the process—that is, on the asymmetry between an incumbent needing a majority to remain in place, but a challenger being able to win with only a plurality of the replacement vote.

As it turned out, my concern was moot, so at least we all know now what happens next. For my next trick, Ill risk being even more naive in hoping that I may speak this week of both Apple and Microsoft operating systems without finding myself in an even more dangerous no-mans land.

In the week that Apple promised October 24th delivery of Mac OS X 10.3, the so-called Panther update of its Unix-based client and server operating systems, it seemed ironic to recall that the very word "cyberspace" was coined on a typewriter--and not even an electric one, at that.

But Panther, with its innovative Expose and Fast User Switching visualizations, might begin the actual movement of real-world user environments in directions that William Gibson first visualized—and that Gibson later developed, when his Hermes 2000 was no longer worth the cost of repair, on an Apple II.

Even on a single-user machine, its not unusual to want to define different worlds for different tasks. I used to do this with batch files that rebooted a DOS machine with different versions of the CONFIG.SYS and AUTOEXEC.BAT files, which I guess is the stone-tools phase of session customization. Then and now, its frustrating to be forced to close down an entire session, either abandoning or tediously preserving the state of various applications, as the price of moving—perhaps only briefly—to a different mode.

Microsofts Windows XP already has a user switching facility, but Apple has made it easier to survey the available options from a readily available menu and to turn, almost literally, to a new point of view on system and network resources.

I would have said, a few months ago, that we should wait to compare Apples improvements against the next-generation Windows UI, part of the package of new technologies whose "Longhorn" code name once suggested a powerful stampede--but whose leisurely pace now seems more like that of placidly grazing cash cows. By the way, be warned: a well-placed Longhorn source at Microsoft assures me that the various previews seen so far of the "Aero" look and feel are "not even close" to what the final product will feature.

But as even the most Microsoft-centered analysts are pointedly observing, Longhorn wont go up in 2005—or maybe even later than that—against this years Panther, but rather against that years Cougar, Lynx, Leopard or Tiger—those names already being trademarked and ready to pounce.

And I dont want to use up all of your attention in assessing the end-user experience of Panther, because its at least as important to note the improvements in the server version of the product—which will probably get much less attention in the forthcoming "Night of the Panther" countdown campaign.

Apples server product team sings the same song as Sun: the value theyre adding to open-source foundations is in providing a fully tested, guaranteed interoperable, out-of-the-box ready-to-go package. Ease of administration and a quantum jump in ease of mixing Macintosh and Windows clients in a single environment are the additional high points of the story that the Panther server has to tell.

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