With New Software Apple Makes Small Step Forward

Apple's new operating system - released today and expected on store shelves by the weekend - is a slick rendition of the current state of the art in desktop software.

It has all the bells and whistles one might expect and a few features one can't find on the rival Windows operating system. But Macintosh OS 8, as the system is called, is not a great leap forward. It's more of a small step on a path that, unfortunately, is getting increasingly rocky.

By now everyone knows the story. Apple's chief executive resigned suddenly earlier this month, leaving the company rudderless just as it unveils new products that are crucial to its survival. The following week, Apple reported a large quarterly loss - smaller than what analysts expected but still troublesome.

Some Macintosh users are beginning to ask whether they should switch to the more mainstream Windows platform (see related story, right).

Against this bleak background, the arrival of OS 8 is a ray of good news. It shows again that Apple, whatever its corporate difficulties, still knows how to develop good software. The final test version of Mac OS 8 I looked at boasted a number of new features that Macintosh users will appreciate.

It's the little features that stand out.

For example, users can designate any folder as a pop-up window. Click on that folder and it becomes a little box at the bottom of your screen. Click on it again and it becomes full size.

Another clever feature is called the "spring-loaded" folder. Drag a file onto a folder and hold it there, the folder springs open. Continue to hold it there and a folder within the folder will open up. Hold it longer and a next-level folder will open and so on. This feature is particularly useful in digging through several folders nested within one another.

The Mac OS 8 has also incorporated an Internet connection "assistant." It guides you through the arcane world of setting up a computer for Internet access. As long as you have all the necessary information to fill in things like the Internet Protocol address and mail server, the "assistant" can create the necessary files. Apple's approach to the Internet is far more straightforward than the Windows system's, which makes it easy if you want to sign up for Microsoft's on-line service.

One disappointment of OS 8 is its much-anticipated multitasking. This is the ability of the computer to do two things at once, not just displaying several programs, but actually running them at the same time. This is especially useful for people who want to do other computer tasks while their machines are running long, complex programs in the background.

But the Mac's multitasking is more limited than what Windows 95 can do. When my machine (a Power Mac 7100/80) ran a well-known diagnostics program called Norton Utilities, the system wouldn't let me switch to anything else until the program had run its tests.

While other new features merely bring the Mac to the standards set by Windows 95, OS 8 still retains a significant lead in multimedia. It boasts a slick "virtual reality" viewer called QuickTime VR. The program allows users to look at a 360-degree picture (of a landscape, for example) and see all views. The program also lets users zoom in and out of a picture. Macintosh OS 8 also includes QuickDraw 3D, a viewer that lets users see three-dimensional pictures and rotate them.

In all, current Macintosh users will want to upgrade to the new system. But its pluses aren't enough to lure Windows users who can already do much of the same with their own computers.

* Send comments to lbelsie@ix.netcom.com or visit my 'In Cyberspace' forum at www.csmonitor.com

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