Mac system keeps its lead on the PC


With Apple offering a new version of the basic Macintos software -- System 7.1 -- it's time to see again what differences there are between Mac and PC.

In some ways, the gulf isn't as big as in the late 1980s. Then, back when plain old DOS was the operating system software that made the PC move, the Mac trumped the PC in almost every way. The Mac was easier to set up, start up, learn programs on, remember how to use old programs on, plug new hardware into and network with. (Windows, the software that makes a DOS-running PC act more like the Macintosh, was still too slow and clumsy to be practical.)

The PC won in only two areas.

First, PCs were a lot cheaper because hundreds of companies competed at building and selling them. Apple was the only maker and seller of Macs.

Second, because there were so many more PCs than Macs, there were many more PC programs. The Mac certainly had the software basics, but the PC offered everything possible.

Then along came Windows. It made the typical PC program as easy to learn as the typical Mac program. And once you had learned one program under Windows, it was relatively easy to learn the next. Programs shared a common structure of menus and graphic symbols for their commands. That's what made the Mac famous, what Apple advertised, so many people were convinced that the PC had caught up with the Mac.

And Windows kept improving. Version 3.1 includes some new multimedia abilities. The recently released Windows for Workgroups simplifies networking -- connecting a group of PCs to share files, messages and printers.

This Windows wave has sold many people the notion that the Macintosh and PC are on the same level. Not so.

Remember that list of advantages the Mac had over the PC: easier to set up, start up, learn programs on, remember how to use old programs on, plug new hardware into and network with. Windows rises to only a few of those challenges. Some are still clearly Mac strengths.

Today's Mac still has a slight edge on the PC, especially with such System 7.0 improvements (introduced nearly two years ago) as Balloon Help (which can float a cartoon-style balloon on screen telling you what each menu command or graphic does).

And, as for ease of use, the PC, even with Windows, is still behind. You can see this when you install System 7.1. Just slip in the first disk, double-click the mouse button (one of the few fundamentals you must learn on a Mac) on the Install symbol, and then insert new disks as the screen requests. That's it. The system will tell you when it is done. Go on to hook up the Mac to a network or plug in a new monitor, and all you have to do is connect the cables -- typically to the only hole they'll fit on the back of the Mac -- insert the disk that comes with the hardware, and copy its files to the Mac's hard disk. There won't be any editing of .INI files, installation and high-loading of .SYS drivers, conflict resolving of I-O ports, and so on. The Mac hooks up and starts like a car with a key you turn; the PC still requires that you open the hood, check the carburetor (and understand how it works), gap the spark plugs and then turn a crank.

You won't see much on-screen difference in System 7.1 from System 7. Most improvements are behind the screens.

"System Enablers" in the System 7.1 installation process help customize the basic system software to whichever Mac you have: PowerBook, LC, Quadra or whatever.

There is a new "Fonts" folder on your hard disk after installation. Adding text fonts to the Mac now is easier: You just buy them, insert the disk holding them into your Mac and copy them to this Fonts folder. Unhappily, Adobe's Type 1 fonts -- used in PostScript printers for best results -- are not yet integrated with .. the system software, something Apple has been promising for a while.

Another character improvement in 7.1 is called WorldScript characters. This is a built-in ability to type Japanese, Chinese and Korean directly from the Mac's keyboard. Both Mac and Windows have offered "localized" versions for European languages. But other than the KanjiTalk version of the Mac, neither Mac nor Windows offered an easy way for the Asian languages with thousands of characters to work at a keyboard. Now System 7.1 lets users type the phonetic version of words, using the standard keyboard, which are then translated on screen into one of the complex characters for that written language.

Other improvements in the Mac's system software include QuickTime 1.5 and the DAL Client Extension.

QuickTime permits video to be compressed on a Mac disk and shown on the Mac screen. This is useful for sophisticated multimedia work and will soon be showing up in small business and home use in such products as Kodak's Photo CD. This lets you develop pictures to be saved on disk instead of printed on paper and then viewed and changed on the computer screen.

Until now you didn't get QuickTime with the System software; it came as a separate Starter Kit (for $169) or with a video program or peripheral. QuickTime 1.5 is bundled with System 7.1. It adds a new compression routine that squeezes huge video files into half the space of the original compression routine (which is still in the program, too), but this new routine is painfully slow. A more advanced collection of QuickTime stuff will still be available separately in the QuickTime Starter Kit.

DAL is a data-base programming language more interesting to corporate programmers than to the average Mac owner. Unbundling interests Apple a great deal because the company has come to see itself largely as a "software company," instead of as a "hardware company that happens to have good software." With this new focus, Apple is tempted toward new ways to make money with great software, instead of throwing it )) in for free with the hardware. An understandable trend, but I hope it doesn't lead to a situation where 10 Macs in an office will have 10 system software situations, and where home Macs will have an impoverished version of the operating system.

Incidentally, another form of unbundling appeared when Apple introduced At Ease earlier this year. This $59 program makes the Macintosh screen even simpler, slimming down the menu choices and offering a few simple graphic icons that you need only click once to start a program. This is obviously great for Macs that will be in kids' hands but could also prove to be the next step in making the Mac useful for any beginner.

The Macintosh is still easier to learn and to use than the PC, especially in the real world, where installing new or upgraded software and hardware is a regular fact. I hope Apple emphasizes this more (I've noticed a few ads in the right direction lately).

System 7.1 doesn't lose this advantage, but it doesn't leap ahead to keep it, either: 7.1 is just a modest improvement, mainly behind the scenes.

Apple will have to make such steps more often than every couple of years (that's how long since System 7.0 appeared) if it wants to keep ahead of Windows.

Vital statistics

System 7.1, for Macintosh computers. $99. From Apple Computer, 20525 Mariani Ave., Cupertino, Calif. 95014. (408) 996-1010 or (800) 776-2333.

On a scale of one to four, with one indicating poor and fouindicating excellent, here's how the product rates:


Performance 3

Ease of use 4

Value 2

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