Mac's New System 7 Faces A Strong Draft From Windows

Richard Brandt in Cupertino, Calif.
Business Week

October 15, 1990

Back in 1984, when Apple Computer Inc. introduced its Macintosh, it was easy to see what made it different. For one thing, its trim physique made it far better looking than other personal computers. More important, instead of just showing words and numbers, as an IBM PC did, the Mac had eye-pleasing graphics. And it came with a device called a mouse that made it possible to do things with a push of a button, rather than typing commands.

What made most of that possible was the Macintosh operating system, the program that controls the computer. In addition to using pictures called ''icons'' to represent functions, it let owners look at data in two separate files simultaneously by putting them side by side on the screen in ''windows.'' Thanks also to the operating system, all programs written for Mac work similarly, making it easier to learn new ones.


Now, after years of trying, other computers have caught up with the Mac. Last May, software developer Microsoft Corp. announced Windows 3.0, a $150 IBM PC program that mimics the Mac's graphics and windowing features. Industry watchers say that Windows might give the Mac a boost by making graphics more popular.

Mainly, however, Windows is a threat. Realizing that, Apple decided back in 1988 to try to regain the lead with a massive rewrite of its operating system. Called System 7, it is the most extensive software project Apple has attempted since the original Mac. Already a year late, System 7 is due out early next year and will come standard with new Macintoshs. But it will lack some publishing graphics that Apple had originally planned for it. Still, Mac owners will get features in System 7 that aren't likely to appear on PCs for a couple of years (table). Better yet, software packages that were written for earlier Mac operating systems will be able to work with System 7. That's a big advantage over the new PC packages, Windows and OS/2, which require new programs to take advantage of their new features. Making System 7 ''backwards compatible'' has been the major cause of its delay.

The biggest improvement in System 7 is how it helps Macs communicate with different kinds of computers--a key selling point in corporations. The communications advances are so powerful, says Philippe Kahn, president of software maker Borland International Inc., that ''whatever Microsoft gained with Windows, Apple will gain back with System 7.''

The problem is that System 7's benefits won't be easy to see, the way the Mac's were in 1984. A Mac and an IBM PC with Windows sitting side by side look alike. Indeed, Windows is so close to the Mac that it has been the subject of a protracted copyright suit between Apple and Microsoft.

Some buyers may also balk at what System 7 doesn't have. It has only a simple form of multitasking, the ability to run more than one program at a time. Complex multitasking is a big feature of OS/2.

Most worrisome, System 7 may not be enough to inspire new software programs for the Mac--particularly when Apple's market share is declining. If that's true, Apple may find that, for all its effort, System 7 amounts to no more than treading water.


Makes it easy to find files stored on the hard-disk drive by searching, for instance, by key word


Creates sharp type on the screen and enlarges or shrinks it to any size


Allows a computer to run large programs without using up all the memory by shifting unused portions of the program to the hard-disk drive


A built-in language that lets Mac application programs get information from a corporate database


Links programs so that changes in data in one are reflected in another


Lets two Macs connect by cable so they can send data to each other easily. With an add-in card, a Mac and an IBM PC can be linked


Copyright 1990 McGraw-Hill, Inc.