Whether you use a personal computer at work or at home, its operating system affects your choice of software and hardware peripherals, your ease in loading programs and managing files, and your computer's resistance to crashes and security breaches.
If the central processing unit, or CPU, is the heart of your machine pumping out data, then the operating system, or OS, is the brain determining where data should go. Here's a run-down on the state of OSs today.
• Windows 2000: This is Microsoft's best attempt yet to bring the enhanced stability and security of Windows NT to the masses. Windows 2000 (www.microsoft.com/windows2000) still doesn't match the stability and scalability of many Unix-based systems, but it is a good upgrade for most users of Windows NT 4.0, with an easier-to-use interface and support for USB peripherals, DVD drives, and Plug-and-Play upgrading.
It's not a good choice for most Windows 98 or 95 users, however. Despite compatibility improvements, Windows 2000 may not support all of your programs or peripherals. You need a relatively recent computer and at least 64 megabytes of memory to run it effectively. And it's expensive, as are all Microsoft OSs—one of the few software categories that hasn't dropped in price over time.
• Windows Millennium: For most people, the successor to Windows 98 will be a better upgrade. Windows Millennium, abbreviated as Windows Me, is scheduled for release later this year and will improve support for the hottest new technologies, such as the Internet audio format MP3, digital video editing and home networking.
Reports from beta testers, however, indicate that Microsoft may remove from Windows Me some business networking features that exist in Windows 98 and 95. They allege it is an attempt to force business users to upgrade to the more expensive Windows 2000.
When it comes to Microsoft operating system upgrades, the best decision can sometimes be to wait to upgrade until you buy a new computer that comes preinstalled with the new OS. This saves time and money and avoids potential upgrading glitches.
• Linux: Microsoft may be the OS Goliath, but there are a few Davids out there, slingshots in hand with the U.S. Justice Department keeping a benevolent watch on them. The most promising is Linux, the Unix-like OS once strictly for geeks but now moving slowly toward the mainstream.
Corel, the Canadian company behind CorelDraw and WordPerfect, is now distributing Corel Linux (linux.corel.com), an easier-to-use version that looks like Windows 98. More Linux software is available, including Corel's own WordPerfect for Linux, though the selection is still dwarfed by the available Windows titles. You also might have problems getting all of your peripherals to work with Linux systems.
Linux is commonly used as a midrange server OS for delivering data and programs over networks. But it will likely show up in the future in more budget-priced computers as well as Internet appliances—inexpensive computer-like devices specifically for connecting to the Net.
LOW-COST DARK HORSES
Two other inexpensive, upstart OSs, less widely known than Linux, are BeOS and NewDeal. BeOS (www.be.com) is available as a free download for individuals and, like Linux, will be bundled with some Internet appliances.
BeOS was originally targeted to Apple Macintosh users, but when Apple backed out of negotiations to buy it, Be shifted focus. Be customized the latest version of BeOS for Windows 98 and 95 users. Unlike with Linux, you can use BeOS without having to create a separate partition on your hard disk. Still, unless you use it with an Internet appliance, it's a tool mainly for multimedia experimenters.
NewDeal (www.newdealinc.com) can be a good choice if you have a 286 clunker that's headed for a landfill. The product, created by the people behind GeoWorks, a former Windows competitor now used primarily in wireless devices, is a new graphical OS designed for old PCs. Its minimum requirements are just 640 kilobytes of memory, a 10-megabyte hard drive, CGA graphics, and DOS 3.0.
Once heralded as the successor to DOS, IBM's OS/2 is still around, but it's not being actively marketed or upgraded anymore and is used mainly by IBM's corporate customers.
And finally, with its legion of loyal followers, the eminently usable Mac OS continues to improve. Mac OS 9, though still available only for Macs, makes it easier to conduct an Internet search and helps different people using the same Mac keep their desktop and Internet settings separate.
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at email@example.com or http://members.home.net/reidgold.