Apple Computer Inc. last week formally introduced a substantially upgraded version of the Macintosh operating system, called System 7.0. It had been eagerly awaited and long delayed.
Apple officials said they expected 1.5 million to 3 million Macintosh users to switch to System 7.0 this year, and analysts said System 7.0 was Apple's best hope for keeping the Windows operating system from Microsoft Corp. at bay.
Indeed, analysts hailed the introduction of System 7.0 as one of the most significant events in Apple's flagship product line since the debut of the original Macintosh in 1984.
Yet many people's eyes glaze over at the mention of operating system software, the underlying code that controls all the housekeeping functions of a computer: how files are created, named and moved, how the different components of a computer communicate with one another, how memory is allocated, how other software programs look on screen and more.
The operating system provides a personal computer with its personality, and the Macintosh's easy-to-use, graphics-based operating system introduced the computing public to windows, symbols, pull-down command menus, the mouse, built-in networking, sound, animation and other features that differentiated the Mac from all other computers.
Microsoft's Windows 3.0 operating system for IBM-compatible computers was introduced a year ago, bringing these PCs close enough that Apple is suing Microsoft for copyright infringement. Analysts conjectured that Windows 3.0, and to a lesser extent the competing OS/2 operating system championed by IBM, would diminish the appeal of Macintoshes to business customers.
Meanwhile, Apple has been trying to match the hardware performance and value of its PC competitors, with mixed success. The biggest gain came with the Macintosh II series, which erased any notions that the Mac was toylike or limited. Apple still trails badly in portable computers and in more powerful workstations, but its chairman, John Sculley, has said those fronts will be addressed before the end of the year.
Because the Macintosh is incompatible with its PC counterparts, the Mac's appeal has always been somewhat limited. And it has never been able to capture more than 10 percent to 15 percent of office desktops.
Apple is hoping System 7.0 will change that. The only major facet of the Mac that had not been overhauled in recent years was the operating system, and the new software greatly improves the way Macintoshes communicate with other Macs over office networks. It also permits Macintosh spreadsheets, databases, word processing, desktop publishing packages and other applications to share information much more easily and productively than before.
There is little question businesses will eventually want to adopt System 7.0. But many analysts caution against doing so immediately. "I don't think any business should rush out and upgrade on Day One," said Bob LeVitus, author of the book "Dr. Macintosh" and an expert on System 7.0. For one thing, any new or substantially rewritten software is likely to contain "bugs" or anomalies that cause problems.
System 7.0 simply will not run on Mac 128, Mac 512 or Mac 512 Extended machines. The Mac Plus, Mac SE, Mac Portable and Mac II models can run System 7.0, but without virtual memory. The Mac IIx, Mac IIcx or Mac SE/30 can use limited amounts of virtual memory. Those who own a Mac IIci, Mac IIfx, Mac IIsi or Mac LC can upgrade without a second thought.
For those who already own Macs, the software for System 7.0 can be obtained without charge from any authorized dealer -- just bring in eight 800-kilobyte diskettes, since System 7.0 fills up 3.6 megabytes of disk space. On the other hand, Apple is requiring Mac owners to fork over $99 for the documentation needed to understand and operate System 7.0.
Some important features of System 7.0 for business users will be discussed next week.