THE RIVALRY between Apple and Microsoft has been good for computer users. Each has borrowed ideas from the other to the benefit of both, and inevitably there has been some convergence in the way their operating systems function.
Microsoft fell behind with the release of Vista early in 2007. Apple had made a big advance with Mac OS X, offering a consumer-friendly graphical interface on a battle-hardened Unix core. And now it was running on Macs built with the same Intel processors, chipsets, graphics cards and I/O devices and ports as the x86 PC, eroding some of the price and compatibility advantages of Windows machines. Vista improved with time but Mac fans still had a lot to crow about.
New versions of both operating systems, Windows 7 and Snow Leopard (Mac OS X 10.6), have been released in the past few weeks. So how do they stack up against each other? I've picked out a few of the highlights that differentiate the two operating systems for me.
Snow Leopard wins hands down on price. The upgrade costs just £25, compared with between £80 and £200 off the shelf for Windows 7. True, Windows 7 is a more substantial upgrade but users can argue that they are paying the Vole to correct Vista's faults.
My impression, after using both side by side for some time, is that Windows 7 easily holds its own with Snow Leopard on usability - something Apple has always claimed as its strong suit. The Windows 7 task bar has borrowed features from Apple but for me it works better than Snow Leopard's Dock. This is partly a matter of habit and taste.
A major function of Apple's Dock is to launch favourite applications. I tend to do this from desktop icons, which works well with the Windows 7 taskbar because it is designed primarily for managing rather than launching tasks. Its snap-up preview boxes are excellent for keeping track of multiple Windows, and less cumbersome than Apple's Expose system. You can, of course, create desktop launch icons under Snow Leopard but they will duplicate rather than complement Dock functionality.
One very useful Windows 7 feature that Snow Leopard might take on board is that if you right-click a taskbar icon you get a list of files recently used by the related application.
Snow Leopard deals more gracefully with the safe ejection of plug-in storage, an operation that Windows 7 still relegates to a barely visible taskbar item - though it has abandoned Vista's annoying habit of vetoing an eject simply because a listings box is open.
In both operating systems I find myself using the search boxes far more often to access applications and files, breaking an old habit of ploughing through file or program listings.
One niggle with Snow Leopard is that given a choice of two known WiFi access points it uses the first on its profile list. You can change the default but Windows 7 avoids the need by picking the one with the strongest signal.
Snow Leopard feels more secure than Windows 7 in the way that you feel less threatened in a relatively safe area of town - Windows, still running on nine out of ten consumers' computers globally, clearly gets attacked more often. Yet some analysts rate Mac OS as less secure than Windows 7 and it is certainly not invulnerable, especially because its users tend to be less on their guard.
Both platforms therefore need anti-malware software, which is now available free from Microsoft in the form of Security Essentials. This has yet to prove itself, but if effective it amounts to a points win to Windows 7.
Security measures have bought the two platforms closer together in how they operate. The days of roaming Windows PCs at will are over. A Windows 7 machine feels as locked down as a Mac, with access to system files strictly policed - and far less obtrusively than under Vista.
In one respect the platforms have swapped structure. The Mac interface was born graphical, whereas Windows began as a bolt-on front-end for the DOS command-line operating system. You could always drop down into DOS for tasks such as running batch files.
Now it is Snow Leopard, or rather its Unix underpinning, that has a comprehensive command interface, though relatively few Mac users will even be aware of the fact, while the command-line box in Windows 7 has the feel of a bolt-on.
The adoption of Unix was a clever move by Apple, making Macs more credible for enterprise use. But in other respects the company seems cussedly set on cutting itself off from that market.
Snow Leopard, unlike its predecessor, will read files on Windows NTFS disks but it will not, out of the box, write to them. The feature was apparently disabled shortly before the release of Snow Leopard, a baffling decision that is hardly going to increase its chances of corporate adoption.
The official reason is given implausibly as "security", but it is a poor class of security that stops people from doing their work. A high proportion of Mac users have to work in a Windows environment and many will also own Windows machines or at least need to share data with others who do. Oddly, Snow Leopard will write to a networked NTFS drive, presumably because it is the file server that soils its hands with the Windows disk.
Could it be that Apple got cold feet about encouraging people to run the two operating systems side by side? In some ways Windows 7 is patently better - it can use virtually any peripheral going and it will run on any modern make of PC. Many problems under Windows are caused by third-party drivers, so this could be at the cost of some reliability. But Microsoft now takes great care to validate drivers and the greater choice in hardware makes for lower machine prices. Businesses in particular do not like single-source products - a major drawback of Macs, which are of course exclusive to Apple. The same can be said about Microsoft software, however.
And Mac OS X is not infallible. I got delayed for hours, preparing to load Snow Leopard, because the earlier version hung trying to read one of its own disks to allow me to change a forgotten password. There was no error message or explanation given.
The fact of the matter is that for workaday use there is little to choose between the two operating systems. You may quibble that one is fractionally faster at this or that operation, but for most users the performance differences would be trivial.
Snow Leopard and Windows 7 are much more than operating systems. Each is a marketplace and comes with a bundle of software and services. The Mac's software suite, including Iphoto and Itunes, is more consumer focused than Microsoft's and more tightly coupled to the Apple selling machine.
Microsoft, with its legacy of antitrust cases, is more circumspect about using Windows 7 as a marketplace. You do, however, have to sign up to its free Windows Live service to get some of the bundled software, which includes Photo Gallery, Movie Maker and the blogging applet Writer. Live has other useful features that, for the moment at least, are free. These include 25GB of online storage, and the ability to synchronise files across machines. In general Windows comes with far more freebies.
None of this will influence the kind of person who would not be seen dead with a PC. Apple's hardware designs may tempt Windows users to swap platforms but there is no compelling reason to do so because of the operating system. This is no reflection on Snow Leopard. It means computing is blessed with two user-friendly, mature, and very good consumer mass market desktop operating systems. And yes, we can thank Apple for that. µ