Microsoft and Apple Computer will both release OS updates this month that will have major repercussions for the connected home. Windows XP Service Pack 1 (SP1), due in late August, will form the basis for Microsoft's next-generation OSs, including Windows XP Tablet PC Edition and Windows XP Media Center Edition (code-named Freestyle). Apple, meanwhile, just completed development of Mac OS X 10.2 (code-named Jaguar). I recently spoke with both companies about these releases.

XP SP1
XP SP1 is a long-awaited release for Windows watchers. Incorporating numerous security fixes that resulted from an early 2002 Trustworthy Computing code review, SP1 promises to be Microsoft's most secure OS ever. The release also includes a new version of Windows Messenger for Instant Messaging (IM) and file sharing, many application and device-compatibility updates, USB 2.0 support, and a new UI component called Set Program Access and Defaults that lets users and PC makers hide XP middleware components such as Internet Explorer (IE) and Outlook Express and replace them with third-party alternatives. XP SP1 will be a free download for existing XP users.

But the most interesting thing about SP1 is that it will form the basis for two Microsoft OSs that are coming out this fall—XP Tablet PC Edition, which will ship only with Tablet PC devices, and XP Media Center Edition, which will ship only with a new type of PC called a Media Center PC.

Tablet PCs will come in two basic form factors: a convertible laptop style (which I prefer) and a true tablet device that requires a docking station to use a keyboard and mouse. The convertible laptops work like typical laptops but have hinges that let you swivel the screen around and cover the keyboard, creating a tablet (see References below for the link to my Tablet PC photo gallery). You can operate the tablet with a keyboard and mouse, or you can use a special stylus and the screen's active digitizer to write directly on the screen, just as you would on a pad of paper. The effect is stunning: The digital ink is smooth and pressure sensitive: Pushing down harder on the stylus creates stronger strokes.

XP Tablet PC Edition performs handwriting recognition, but Microsoft thinks that most people will use digital ink as the data format. After testing the device recently, I'm not so sure. But the tablet form factor does enable new, casual computing experiences that are difficult with regular wireless laptops. And in some situations, writing on a tablet would be more convenient than typing. For more information, check out my XP Tablet PC Edition review (see References below).

I had high hopes for XP Media Center Edition, but I'm disappointed to discover that Microsoft is limiting this wonderful software's potential by bundling it only with special Media Center PCs, the first of which will ship this fall. And only Hewlett-Packard (HP) is selling a Media Center PC model this year, further limiting the device's potential—which is enormous: XP Media Center Edition includes a new Media Center application with gorgeous but simple links to TV, digital music, digital photos, digital videos, DVDs, and other digital-media-related content. Microsoft designed the UI to look good on a TV, and you can manipulate it with a special remote control, which Media Center PCs include.

Behind the scenes, Media Center PCs include a powerful video card, a TV interface for the software's digital video recorder (DVR) functionality, and a USB-based infrared (IR) interface for the remote control device. Microsoft thinks that the first version will sell primarily to college students, apartment dwellers, and other people who have limited space. The company also believes that most people will use a standard computer monitor for output instead of a TV. I think both these assumptions are misguided, but I'll have more to say about this topic next month when Microsoft lets me publish a review. In the meantime, I'm testing a prototype Media Center PC, and you can check out my XP Media Center Edition preview (see References below).

Mac OS X 10.2
On the Macintosh side of the fence, Apple recently completed development of its next major release, Mac OS X 10.2. Contrary to the version number, Jaguar is a fairly major release that includes many welcome improvements over the current version, OS X 10.1.x.

Jaguar includes substantially updated Mail.app and Address Book applications and a new iChat IM application that integrates with AOL Instant Messenger (AIM). The product also ships with Apple's recently released QuickTime 6 media player, which supports MPEG-4 as its native format. But I think that Jaguar's Windows-compatibility features are the OS's most exciting; they fix all the problems I had with OS X 10.1 last fall. Now Jaguar machines will appear on Windows workgroups, making interoperability easier. And you can browse Windows workgroups from a Jaguar box, just as you can from Windows. And all those bizarre Mac resource files that Mac OS X used to leave behind are now hidden by default; with OS X 10.1, I once thought I had a virus because of all the weird files I found on my Windows machine after I accessed it from the Mac.

One gotcha with Jaguar, unfortunately, is its price. Unlike previous updates, which were free, Jaguar will cost $130 unless you purchase OS X 10.1.x or a new Mac sometime this month, in which case you qualify for a $20 upgrade. Coupled with Apple's recent decision to drop its free iTools services in lieu of $100-per-year .Mac services, some of Apple's customers are feeling a little pinched (see References below for a link to "Did Apple Out-.NET Microsoft with .Mac?"). But Jaguar has so much going for it that I suspect many OS X users will upgrade. I'll have more information about Jaguar in the coming weeks.

Regardless of which platform you prefer, you'll soon have to make some upgrade choices. I strongly recommend that all XP users upgrade to the free SP1 release. Consider XP Tablet PC Edition or XP Media Center Edition if you plan to make a new PC purchase and feel that one of the devices meets your needs.

On the Mac side, it's a little tough to recommend such an expensive upgrade, but the reality is that Jaguar is a monumental upgrade. I just wish Apple could have rewarded OS X early adopters with a more compelling price. Mac OS 9.x users who are waffling about OS X, take note: Jaguar is the release you've been waiting for. Check out Apple's Web site for more information (see References below).

References

"Tablet PC Preview: Photo Gallery"

"Windows XP Tablet PC Edition reviewed"

"Windows XP Media Center ('Freestyle') Preview"

"Windows XP Service Pack 1 (SP1) Preview"

"Did Apple Out-.NET Microsoft with .Mac?"

Apple Mac OS X Jaguar