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    Waiting for Windows 95-- has Microsoft bitten off more than it can process?

    by Alan Zisman (c) 1995 First published in Business in Vancouver ,  Issue #287  April 25, 1995 High Tech Office  column

    In Samuel Beckett's classic absurdist play, two characters spend all their time alongside a road, waiting for Godot. He's late, and it's not clear what will happen when (or is it if?) he arrives. A large proportion of the estimated 60 million Windows users worldwide may be sharing many of the same emotions.

    Don't switch to OS/2 if you're frustrated with Windows, they were told-- Windows 95 is coming by the end of 1994. Well, maybe spring 1995. Now it's August. And of course, that means the product (if it meets the latest deadline) will be "released" by August 31. Add on another six weeks or so for significant quantities to arrive on store shelves, so that means October. If it's on schedule.

    Unlike Godot, however, who remained a rumour throughout the play, Windows 95 has actually been seen and used (several forms) by some people. There are 40,000 beta-testers worldwide-- people who have volunteered to try out versions of the software that are not yet fully functional, in order to help Microsoft find out what works and what doesn't, out in the real world. As one of these testers, I've been living with an evolving Windows 95 since last October. I've installed at least half a dozen different versions, known as "builds," carefully reporting to Microsoft what works, and, more importantly, what fails to work.

    Microsoft is taking these reports seriously: it's making an honest effort to make this product work on as many of the wide variety of PC configurations as possible. After I sent in a fairly minor bug report last week, I got home to find a detailed long-distance message on my answering machine from a Microsoft technician working through the evening the night before the long weekend, and then another message from the poor guy, back at work on Saturday!

    There's a lot to like in the product, even in these pre-release versions: it's visually attractive, and generally does a good job of installing and dealing with the uncontrolled chaos that passes for PC hardware. And Microsoft has taken note of the problems that new users often have with the current version of Windows, producing a cleaner, more graceful interface that I believe will be much less confusing.

    Making things easier takes a lot of work. I've seen how hard Microsoft has been trying to make Windows 95 work on virtually every possible hardware configuration (from a baseline of a 386DX with 4 megs of ram-- earlier machines need not apply). Because of that, I've respected their decisions to postpone the product's release: better for it to be late and solid than rushed out the door before it's ready. But I wonder what happens now.

    There have been hints lately that the current versions of Windows 95 don't run newer, more powerful 32-bit versions of software as well as might be hoped, and preparing for this next generation of software is one of the big reasons for users to move up to Windows 95. Since most beta testers have few 32-bit applications, this problem has taken a
    long time to become apparent.

    Microsoft claims to be aware of the problem, and promises that a fix is in the works. But that's one more thing that will need to go through the testing cycle, and all too often with complicated projects like software, fixing one thing breaks something else.

    And as the August release date looms ever closer, so does the pressure to declare the thing done, ready or not. In a classic example of the customer paying for the sizzle, 400,000 users, anxious to try out a pre-release version, flooded phone lines (1-800-95-PREVIEW) to pay $39 plus shipping and handling for a copy that's guaranteed to be unfinished, and that will self-destruct in a year. And these users all get the version before the 32-bit fix was included.

    Having used Windows 95 since last fall, I can testify that unlike Godot, it will arrive. But we'll have to wait and see whether it will, in fact, meet all its stated goals, or whether, in order to avoid yet another delay, Microsoft has to compromise its vision.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan