Will Leopard Out-Vista Vista?

eWEEK Labs: Steve Jobs' claims for the forthcoming Apple operating system raise questions of security, storage innovation and channel appeal.

It cant be much fun to be a vendor of a mainstream desktop operating system.

On any given day, one might face reports of a new security vulnerability. One might be accused of harboring, or even authoring, spyware. One might hear complaints that ones pace of innovation had slowed, with more time elapsing between less dramatic updates to ones crown-jewel operating system.

Welcome, Apple Computer, to the mainstream.

When Apple CEO and co-founder Steve Jobs the week of Aug. 7 showed features of the forthcoming OS X 10.5, code-named (and most likely also to be trade-named) Leopard, he showed no sign of lowering the strength of the reality distortion field that hes famous for generating around his product and technology announcements.

If anything, Jobs actually turned the knob up to 11 by claiming that next springs general release of Leopard would steal a march on Microsoft, delivering to Apple users the equivalent of "Vista 2.0."

That kind of claim, now that Apple and Microsoft have become direct rivals on essentially identical hardware platforms, represents a challenge that eWEEK Labs will not hesitate to take up.

We feel obligated to ask: What should enterprise and other mainstream system buyers expect to get from Vista 1.0 when it ships at about the same time as Leopard, and is it remotely plausible for Jobs to suggest that Leopard will be a left-of-decimal jump ahead within the same quarter of next year?

Whether Jobs has gone over the top or not, we have to begin by saying that Microsoft has seriously drained (and perhaps even poisoned) the once-overflowing well of good will that it has long enjoyed among application developers. To look back at past Microsoft Professional Developers Conference presentations, and to ruminate on the bent or broken promises of the so-called "three pillars of Longhorn," is to marvel at how far short of those goals the company has now reconfigured its aims.

Vista was formerly envisioned as a sophisticated reinvention of associative storage, coupled to networked resources with powerful communication frameworks and made accessible to users with dramatic new data and multimedia visualizations.

Whats now promised for 2007 is a radically de-featured Windows XP upgrade with only two major selling points remaining. For users, there will be substantially improved security (at the expense of what may be a clumsy and annoying period of developer acclimation to non-Administrator privileges). For PC-building OEMs, there will be aggressive hardware requirements to propel new hardware sales rather than mere in situ operating system upgrades. And never forget that its those PC OEMs that are arguably the key Windows buyers, and that their confidence in Windows as a stimulus to their hardware sales is vital to Windows continued dominance as the default preinstalled platform.

Even if Microsoft is allowed to define the terms of debate, its hard to argue against the proposition that the company is promising mere parity between its Vista and Apples Leopard.

Better security? With User Account Control, Microsoft finally gets to a point that Apple reached years ago, with users operating by default at a level of privilege that does not allow drastic and damaging changes to system configuration. Anyone whos tried to do this under Windows 2000 or XP can attest, though, that theres a big gap to be jumped between logging in the user and getting proper behavior from the applications.

Microsoft will invest huge amounts of blood and treasure in bringing developers up to speed on the proper manner of writing applications that expect to have access only to user-level storage locations and data structures.

Microsoft also promises that Vista will offer dramatically more convenient backup tools, a prospective play thats been somewhat trumped by Apples elegant and apparently well-conceived Time Machine.

Some Windows critics will doubtless add that Microsofts fragile and complex registry constitutes a crippling disadvantage, and that Microsoft needs elaborate backup aids merely to defend its users against Windows own propensity for self-mutilation. But long-time OS X users have stories of their own to tell about the occasional need for minor surgery on well-hidden caches and other OS X underpinnings. The difference is one of degree, not of kind.

Vistas speech recognition options, along with its Sidebar and Gadgets, likewise aim at targets that Apple has already hit—but that we have yet to find of more than brief value until theyre exploited by inspired development talent. As mere platform features, we dont find such things compelling.

Pervasive and largely automatic search, dubbed Spotlight by Apple and Instant Search (with Search Folders) by Microsoft, has likewise failed to transform our manner of using our machines—although future generations of users, not forced to develop their own schemes of folder naming and other such hierarchy-oriented behavior, may find otherwise.

So much for accentuating the positive. Both Apple and Microsoft would doubtless prefer to stop the conversation there, but we prefer to finish the job.

Apple has lately tarred itself with the brush of intrusive (though perhaps inadvertent) spyware with some of its efforts to make its iTunes even more helpful to users. It has started to cross the line from bold innovation to proprietary isolation in its handling of (admittedly, wildly successful) downloadable content offerings. And security problems that once left Apple untouched, thanks to a completely different processor instruction set, may soon become more all-inclusive. For example, a flaw in Microsoft PowerPoint that was disclosed Aug. 8 was relevant to Apple as well as Windows users. As we said, welcome to the mainstream.

We give full marks to Apple, of course, for doing the nearly impossible for a second time—that is, for moving a user base and application portfolio to a completely new processor architecture with astonishingly little pain or even discomfort. Now that Apple can no longer maintain, however, any notion of fundamentally better hardware, the company must explicitly play the strengths of its tightly controlled and highly integrated sole-source hardware offering against the diversity of configurations and the competitiveness of pricing to be found on the Windows side of the marketplace.

Microsoft, meanwhile, is thoroughly annoying its users with badly implemented and clumsily presented anti-piracy measures and an exhausting pace of security patches. Being a conscientious Windows user, putting it simply, just isnt very much fun, while being an OS X user seems much less onerous. Microsoft must not underestimate the importance of closing that gap.

This leaves Apple very much in the game, having defied many rounds of predictions over the past 20 years that its demise was imminent. Apple is certainly setting the pace in security, usability and visual attractiveness of the desktop and mobile computing experience; it is also continuing to set the bar high for industrial design and aesthetic appeal in hardware.

To claim, though, that Leopard represents "Vista 2.0" is excessive. It invites, moreover, consideration of just how much more Apple is now playing and will in the future be playing on Microsofts home turf, and of how hard Apples prospective road may therefore be.

Technology Editor Peter Coffee can be reached at peter_coffee@ziffdavis.com.


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