SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Standards make life easier.
In this country, most automobiles run on unleaded gasoline and have the steering wheel on the left. Most videocassette players are based on the VHS video format. Most fax machines adhere to the Group 3 standard, allowing any two machines to send and receive data.
There is no single standard in the world of personal computers, however. DOS, DOS-Windows, GeoDOS, DOS-Deskmate, OS/2-Presentation Manager, Macintosh, Amiga and several flavors of Unix are among the operating systems competing for a share of the PC market, and more are on the way.
Programs written for one type of computer cannot work with another. Some people think there should be one standard for personal computers; others say the public should be able to choose from among a variety of systems.
Last week, at the annual Seybold electronic publishing exposition in San Jose, champions of some of the major personal computer operating systems took turns explaining why their systems deserve to be the dominant standard for the 1990s.
All of this is important because the emergence of one operating system as dominant -- or even the perception of one as dominant -- could sway the buying decisions of people shopping for new computers.
"The war for the desktop is over, and DOS-Windows has won," said Paul Grayson, president of Micrografx Inc. of Richardson, Texas, a company that makes software for both the DOS-Windows and OS/2-Presentation Manager systems.
Grayson's opinion appeared to be borne out by the large number of Windows-based programs on display at the exposition, traditionally a showcase for Macintosh products.
Moreover, many software developers conceded that they were redirecting much of their efforts to produce software for Windows 3.0, Microsoft Corp.'s graphical user interface for the venerable DOS standard.
Windows 3.0 was introduced just a few months ago, and Microsoft officials said they expect to sell a million copies of it by the end of the year.
An official of a software company that develops programs for both DOS-Windows and Apple Macintosh referred to the recently announced joint business venture between Apple Computer Inc. and Sony Corp. and said the pairing was ironic.
"Here you have the company that brought you Macintosh teaming up with the company that brought you Betamax," said the developer, who requested anonymity.
Her implication was that the Macintosh system was in danger of becoming the Sony Betamax of the personal computer industry -- technically superior, perhaps, but outnumbered.
There was strong dissent among the Apple corps, of course.
Moments after Grayson of Micrografx declared Windows to be the champion, an Apple official asked the audience of about 1,000 computer professionals to raise their hands if they used Macintoshes. All but a few hands were raised.
And just wait, the Apple official said: The forthcoming System 7.0 operating system, expected next year, coupled with the new computers that Apple is planning to introduce Oct. 15, will clearly demonstrate the Macintosh's continuing superiority over its DOS-based rivals, he said.
The competition is not limited to Windows vs. Macintosh.
Bill Joy, a founder of Sun Microsystems Inc., suggested the Macintosh's No. 2 ranking will soon be usurped by Unix, actually a family of operating systems. Sun is the leading maker of powerful scientific and engineering work stations.
Unix has been around for years, and it already offers most of the features that the other operating systems only promise to deliver in the future.
However, Unix is a complex system that daunts even experienced PC users, and the many variants of Unix have created confusion, slowing acceptance.
Then a representative of IBM said OS/2 was "viable, and it is only going to improve over time."
The comments were subdued in contrast to the great expectations IBM voiced for OS/2 in 1987, when it was ballyhooed as the operating system that would replace DOS by the early 1990s.
OS/2 may eventually replace DOS, but not on IBM's original timetable. Today only a small number of corporate customers are using OS/2.
IBM recently wrested control of OS/2 away from Microsoft, which has turned its attention to Windows and to developing a operating system now called simply "portable OS."
In the long run it is possible that none of the operating systems competing for dominance today will be around a decade from now. Computer technology is advancing so quickly that a new standard, as yet unknown, may eventually triumph.