When the major planets fall into alignment in the heavens, soothsayers prophesy upheaval and chaos.
So beware the Ides of April. A similar portentous alignment is occurring this month in the personal computer industry as several major companies introduce new or improved operating system software.
Operating system software is the foundation software upon which all other computer applications operate. It is, in an anthropomorphic sense, the soul or DNA of the machine.
The most popular operating system is DOS, used by an estimated 70 million computers. DOS is more than 10 years old, well beyond retirement age when measured in computer years, and several newer operating systems are maneuvering to replace it.
It is not a trivial thing to switch operating systems, or even to upgrade. In many cases users are forced to buy new or upgraded versions of applications software.
In some cases a switch involves learning new command systems,and in others it demands buying more memory, a bigger hard disk or a faster processor.
The challenge of changing or upgrading is made more complex this month by the sudden breadth of choices.
Last Monday, Microsoft Corp., the world's biggest computer software company, introduced Microsoft Windows 3.1. Windows 3.1 is an updated version of Microsoft's phenomenally popular graphical extension to DOS, which hides the DOS commands behind a modern point-and-click facade.
Meanwhile, International Business Machines Corp., the world's biggest computer hardware company, officially released its new version of the OS/2 operating system, which allows PC owners to run DOS, Windows and OS/2 applications at the same time.
Go Corp. is expected to introduce its long-awaited Penpoint operating system for pen-based computers on Thursday. Several analysts contend that Penpoint, although it is specifically aimed at pen-based systems, will exert powerful forces on the computing universe by the mid-1990s.
It will be challenged by Microsoft's Windows for Pen Computing, scheduled to arrive this year.
There are other events as well, including the pending arrival of Solaris 2.0, a Unix operating system developed by a spinoff from the workstation maker Sun Microsystems Inc., but aimed at Intel-based PCs. NextStep 3.0, an updated Unix operating system for the Next computer, is also ready.
Despite all the activity, the telescopes of the PC industry will be trained on the biggest players, IBM and Microsoft.
Experienced computer users often advise others to avoid any software product that has a version number ending in zero (1.0, 2.0 and so on). A zero indicates a major revision, and major revisions are typically afflicted by lots of in compatibilities, system crashes and other unexpected surprises.
More than 10 million people have ignored this advice and bought Windows 3.0 since its introduction a year and a half ago.
Those who waited, as well as those who didn't, will be pleased to know that version 3.1 fixes several of the problems that vexed users of version 3.0, among other things offering better use of the computer's memory, faster printing speeds, an improved system for working with files and applications and fewer system crashes.
It remains to be seen whether the "zero" curse affects OS/2 2.0. OS/2 was originally introduced five years ago as a joint development of Microsoft and IBM, then the closest of strategic partners.
But Microsoft, sensing that customers were not ready to move to an operating system as complex and demanding as OS/2, dropped out and turned its attention to Windows.
Because of the well-publicized animosity between IBM and Microsoft, Windows and OS/2 are often portrayed as direct competitors for control of the desktop PC market.
They do compete on one level, but IBM's OS/2 is far more ambitious and powerful than Windows. Its real competitor is Microsoft's forthcoming NT operating system, the next generation of Windows.
Microsoft says NT will be ready later this year.
OS/2 2.0 is a remarkable achievement, but it was born under a bad sign. It must overcome the "loser" reputation of OS/2 version 1.0, and it faces daunting odds against Windows. There will be a more detailed look at Windows 3.1 here next week, followed by OS/2.