Operating systems vendors prep for next-gen hardware

Windows, Linux, Solaris get ready for a new generation of hardware, leaving the polish to Apple

IT organizations usually stay loyal to the OS choices they make, but every once in a while, vendors and projects yield a bumper crop of OSes so compelling that the strength of ties binding IT to their chosen operating systems are tested.

Evolution of the Linux 2.6 kernel continued to accelerate in 2005 with the delivery of four significant milestone releases. A relatively new Linux distribution, Ubuntu, is rapidly gaining devotees with its promise to supply a commercial-grade OS without setting aside enterprise features for a commercial release. Sun Microsystems delivered a much-needed jolt to its x86 and SPARC server base with Solaris 10, providing stiff competition to Windows and Linux for the 64-bit x86 platform. Microsoft was particularly busy in the past year as well, with the hallmark being the long-awaited delivery of native 64-bit editions of Windows Server 2003 and Windows XP.

While all of these new operating systems delight for their attention to enhancing stability and technical features, we found only one -- Apple's OS X v10.4 Tiger -- that addresses productivity at the client and server level in ways that dig much deeper than Apple's trademarked glitz.

That Tiger, from kernel to browser, makes the Mac give-to-your-grandmother easy goes without saying. But Tiger also strikes us as the first major release of a desktop OS in which the new features are targeted mainly at professional users.

Spotlight's metadata-based, content-aware, pervasive, rapid, intelligent file searching is wasted on a machine with only a few hundred files, but it is a boon for professionals for whom the volume and poor organization of their data drags on their productivity like an anchor. Spotlight scans the contents and metadata of most types of rich documents in a flash, and it incorporates e-mail, calendar, and contact data in every search.

Day-to-day work with a client system isn't just about data, but the way it's passed from one stage in a workflow to another. OS X's Automator gives users the ability to capture and distill multistep operations that cross application and vendor boundaries into one-click desktop workflows. Automator leverages facilities already in OS X for transparent systemwide application integration, which Apple considers an essential OS-level service.

And that's just the client side. For its part, OS X Server v10.4 also stands alone in its class, being the only full-power, undiluted, fully extensible, open, and standards-based commercial OS that emerges from the box in a true turnkey state. We don't use the term "turnkey" to mean locked down; OS X Server wraps best-of-breed, commercially validated open source services in a powerful management GUI for local and remote management and monitoring of hardware, services, and client system policies. Whatever you don't find in Tiger you can pull down as open source and build, or buy from commercial vendors, including Oracle and Tibco. And here's one feature Windows can never match: OS X's kernel is open source as well.

The only limitation to OS X is that it won't run on any system that doesn't bear Apple's brand. For many, that's a deal killer, but for others, OS X is enough to pull them into the Mac.

2006 will host the debut of Windows Vista, the first major update to the Windows client OS since Windows XP. Vista looks like Microsoft's best effort to transplant OS X's legendary usability, productivity, visual appeal, and developer enthusiasm into Windows without sacrificing Windows' massive application library. There will be plenty of action on the server front as well, but the battle between Apple and Microsoft will be the one to watch.