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Operating systems: Hurry up and wait

Apple's OS grabbed year-end headlines and Microsoft's Windows NT created a stir, but the full impact of these won't be seen until 1998.

On the operating system software front, 1996 will be remembered as the year that Apple Computer got its OS act together --sort of-- and Microsoft's Windows NT became a serious threat to Unix vendors.

Yet the impact of these pronouncements may not be felt until 1998, once issues concerning backward compatibility, 64-bit platforms, and migration from legacy OSes have been sorted out by vendors and users.

Apple stole the big headlines with its year-end merger announcement with Next Software, which will bring Steve Jobs back to the company he cofounded in addition to a sorely needed new operating system for the Macintosh lineup.

One big worm in Apple's plan: The new OS, derived from Next technology, will not run most existing Mac applications in its first release. The company intends to provide backward compatibility in a future release, possibly in 1998. This means that despite all the Jobs nostalgia, the company still has an OS hodgepodge on its hands along with a $400 million tab for acquiring Next.

Microsoft, with some help from hardware makers, began to make some serious headway in establishing Windows NT as a low-cost, muscular alternative to Unix-powered workstations and servers.

The company debuted Windows NT 4.0, a reworked release that includes better networking and cross-platform capabilities. Compaq Computer and IBM announced plans earlier in the year to launch technical workstation systems based on Windows NT. That may be the first step in relegating Unix systems to the high-end of the workstation market, according to analysts, making room for NT-based systems to clean up on the low end.

On the server front, NT did make some headway against Unix systems, and began replacing Novell NetWare in many installations. But users are still slow to use NT systems as application and database servers--the meat of the server market. Most NT installations are relegated to file and print serving needs, supplanting NetWare, but leaving the Unix servers be.

Analysts said NT will really take off as a server platform when a 64-bit version of the OS debuts. However, this version will require a 64-bit Intel processor, code-named Merced, which isn't expected to appear until 1998 at the earliest.

Last year's big story, Windows 95, proved to be something of a disappointment, analysts added. While by any measure Windows 95 is a huge success, it still did not meet sales predictions. Corporate users, possibly confused by Microsoft's dual OS desktop strategy with 95 and NT versions of Windows, shied away from Windows 95 upgrades and flocked instead to Windows 3.1 and (gulp) DOS. Both "legacy" OSes sold much better than forecasted, analysts said.

Predictions for 1997
"The growth of Windows NT as an application server will exceed overall NT growth next year. That's when the NT vs. Unix thing will really heat up, when applications get delivered. NT has taken Unix market share somewhat. But NT will more significantly eat away at Unix in second half of 1997 and into 1998." --Morgan Gerhart, senior research analyst, The Meta Group

"Users who have been waiting around in corporations to decide (between Windows 95 and Windows NT on the desktop) now have a clear choice. If you are running a portable that needs power management and PCMCIA support, go to Windows 95. If you need security for networked apps, go to NT. I expect both to grow significantly in 1997." --Dan Kusnetsky, analyst, International Data Corporation

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