It's Steve Jobs's plan to make this the Week of the Tiger. But Bill Gates and his minions at Microsoft are crying bull--specifically, a Longhorn steer. Despite the zoological bent, this dust-up is not about animals, but operating systems; Apple and Microsoft just happen to have named each of their major system upgrades after beasts of the realm. This Monday, Bill shows off the future of Windows, a.k.a. Longhorn, at a developers' conference. The oohs and aahs may be tempered by the fact that the hundreds of millions of Windows users won't get their hands on it until holiday season, 2006. (Unless it's even later.) On Friday, Jobs proudly presents the latest Macintosh OS X upgrade, named after that big striped cat that he always seems to have by the tail. When can the 25 million Mac users get their hands on Tiger? This year. This month. That day. Growwwl.

That's a big point for Apple in the latest matchup in high tech's equivalent to the rivalry between the Yankees and the Red Sox. Both companies seem to understand what's really necessary and really cool for the next stop in desktop computing: support for the powerful new generation of 64-bit chips that are coming online; search capabilities built in, so you can mine your own documents as smoothly as Google scans the Web; a suite of persistent, constantly updated tiny applications that keep track of stuff like weather and stock quotes. A way to take advantage of the hot RSS technology that lets you "subscribe" to Web sites instead of visiting them every day or two. And a sleek appearance that relegates the traditional file-and-folder metaphor to the antique shop. Both new systems go a long ways toward making that big step.

But Apple's is here now, and Jobs sees it as indicative of Apple's agility and drive. "Microsoft has followed our taillights for a long time," he says. "Maybe [in the '90s] we stopped innovating for a while, but now they've been copying OS X the same way they copied Mac."

To be fair, Microsoft has a heavier load when it comes to major upgrades. Its system runs on all kinds of different hardware and has to support many legacy apps. Microsoft's revamp also has to make major strides toward fixing the security flaws that plague Windows. Still, Longhorn is not only years overdue but missing what was once going to be its keystone feature, a revolutionary way of handling files called WinFS. (Microsoft admitted it was too hard to implement in the first version of Longhorn.) Windows czar Jim Allchin now says that the company's wizards have figured out how to deliver some of the benefits anyway--stuff like deep desktop searching and visualization technology that replaces the old icons with a thumbnail of what the document actually looks like.

Though conceding that tardiness is a problem, Allchin contends that the breadth of Longhorn makes it a much weightier project than Tiger, which he describes as "a peripheral to the iPod." Furthermore, he suggests that some of Apple's ideas (like the Dashboard mini-programs) were inspired by early demos of Longhorn.

Jobs considers that charge ridiculous. "We've been showing pieces of Tiger for 18 months," he says, insisting that all of Apple's ideas came from within Apple. "And you can be assured all these things have plenty of patent protection," adds Jobs, who, as bloggers have learned, is not shy about siccing lawyers on people.

This is great theater, but the greater show by far will be the one that plays on your computer screen, making your digital life more pleasurable and productive. If you're an Apple fan, showings begin on Friday. Windows users will have to wait until Christmas. 2006. Snort.

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