Welcome to the future according to Windows 95

by Alan Zisman (c) 1995. First published in Canadian Computer Wholesaler, August 1995

The Microsoft steamroller is on track to give the computer using world the latest chapter in the Windows saga-- Windows 95. Originally announced for Fall 94, then 'before the end of the year', then Spring 95, it's finally gone to manufacturing as I write this, in order for millions of copies to be ready in stores for the official release date, August 24th.

With Microsoft budgeting $84 million (US), you can be sure that the release will be noticed.... and this will be a product that will change the face of computing for the rest of the decade. It won't be as big a change as the one from character-mode DOS to graphical-mode Windows 3, which kept the computer world busy for the first half of the 90s, but it will be big enough to keep us all very busy.

Estimates vary between 20 million and 78 million copies sold by this time next year-- we'll have to wait and see how many of the current Windows users will rush to upgrade (I suspect that many corporate users, in particular, will wait a while-- they were also slow to get on to the Windows 3 bandwagon), but Windows 95 will come pre-installed on 80% or more of every new PC sold over the next year. And new computer purchasers make up the biggest market for new software and hardware add-ins.

In case you've been asleep or otherwise missed the growing pre-release hype for this product over the past year, here's what Microsoft is promising:

Windows 95 is first and foremost, compatible with almost all existing DOS and Windows 3 software and hardware... in many ways, this has kept it an evolutionary product, rather than a revolutionary one. But that means that the potential market is much larger than for products such as OS/2, Windows NT, or the Macintosh that force users to make a more drastic break with the past.

However, Windows 95 will accelerate some trends in hardware sales... for instance, anyone advertising a computer with 4 megs of ram will be doing their customers (and themselves) a disservice-- it may run Windows 95, but poorly. The entry-level computer will now come with at least 8 megs. This will put pressure on ram prices, and probably push up the cost of that entry-level machine. Luckily, hard drive prices have been in free-fall for the past year, as Windows 95 is also hungry for drive space, as will be the new generation of Win95 software.

One of the big features of the new operating system is Plug and Play. Windows 95 does a better than expected job of coping with the mess of semi-compatible cards and hardware add-ins available for PCs, but any new hardware should be Plug and Play capable. Look for PnP motherboards, preferably with upgradable flash-ram bioses, and for everything from printers to modems to sound and video and CD-ROM's to ... well, everything to support this new standard.

PC Cards will get a big boost for portable use, and maybe make a jump to desktops. Look for enhanced parallel ports becoming more common, as well as more use of wireless, infrared communication between computers, and between computers and printers.

Even though Win95 does a good job of supporting DOS games, making the infamous boot disk unnecessary, it also includes WinG-- a programming environment that is letting game creators make their games run as fast under Windows as they would under DOS. Add in Windows built-in support for megs of ram, and no more need to write sound or SVGA drivers, and the end of the DOS game is fast approaching. And with it, the end of new DOS programs, except for marginal, special-interest markets.

On the Windows end of program development, though, the race will be on-- to upgrade the thousands of existing 16-bit applications to the new 32-bit environment. Most of these 16-bit applications will run just fine under the new operating system, and the first generation of 32-bit equivalents may provide few real benefits. Smart developers should take their time and re-think their applications to take advantage of Win95's multi-threading capabilities.

We'll see two opposite trends-- on the one hand, more and more so-called Suites, piling collections of applications together and demanding more and more drive space. (Corel Draw 6 for Win 95, by no means the biggest, requires 78 megs of drive space, and recommends 16 megs of ram, for example).

On the other hand, small companies will prosper making small, carefully crafted products that make use of Win95's more extensive use of OLE to integrate applications. A recent good example is VISIO, which adds business graphics right onto the toolbar of Microsoft Word, or WordScan, adding Optical Character Recognition into any of the Big 3 word processors. Similarly, producers of add-ins for programming environments like Visual Basic will do well.

Windows 95 will give a boost to over trends already well underway. Its built-in network support, for example, will add to the boom in connecting machines. And its built in TCP-IP will be just one more factor in the ongoing Internet explosion. Expect more, and better video, including MPEG video support built into video cards and motherboards, permitting computer video to escape from those jerky, postage-sized windows... and that may open the door to video-conferencing and other futuristic uses of computers for real-time person-to-person communication.

The past year or so has been somewhat stagnant, as computer developers waited (and waited and waited) for Win95's release... now that waiting is over, and we should see a new burst of energy, and a new generation of opportunity for hardware and software development and sales.

Still, many expect Windows 95 to be a transitional product... while it looks forward to a multimedia, connected future, it is still looking backward for old DOS and Windows compatibility. Microsoft is barely catching its breath before bringing the Windows 95 interface and Plug and Play to Windows NT. And in a couple of years, when entry-level computers sport 32 megs or more ram, multi-gig hard drives, and 250 mhz processors (say 1997 or 98), presumably we'll all be ready for the next generation operating system to take us into the beginning of the new century.

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