Windows NT 4.0-- should it be part of your product line?

by Alan Zisman (c) 1996. First published in Canadian Computer Wholesaler, October, 1996

Just when maybe you thought it was safe to preload all your machines with one operating system, Windows 95, Microsoft has gone and done it again-by the time you read this, version 4.0 of Windows NT will be making its way through the OEM channels, aiming to be installed on the computers you produce, distribute, and sell.

What is NT, and where does it fit in Microsoft's plans-and more important, where should it fit in your plans and your product line?

A Little History

Microsoft has a long history of taking several generations of a product before finally getting it right-but then releasing software that dominates the marketplace. Windows 1.0, for example, was released (very late) in November, 1985-it wasn't until 1990 and Windows 3.0 that it's use became widespread. The mass popularity of the Win 3.x product line came as a big surprise-not least of all to Microsoft. Through the end of the 1980s, they, along with most self-appointed computer experts expected that the future would belong to OS/2, then a joint Microsoft-IBM project.

But the success of Windows 3.0 also pointed out its shortcomings-built on top of 1981's DOS, it lacked long file name support and had a disconcerting habit of crashing, just when you started to rely on it. Taking OS/2 technology from their divorce with IBM, Microsoft announced an industrial-strength alternative-Windows NT, to be completely rebuilt from scratch. To  head the development team, they recruited respected software developer Dave Cutler, from Digital Equipment. NT was to have two major focuses-as a network server, bringing the ease of a graphical interface into a market dominated by Novell Netware, and as a workstation, in competition with a wide range of Unix machines. NT was designed, like Unix, to be portable-to run on a range of different processors, not just the Intel X-86 line, like DOS, Windows, and OS/2. As well, it would support machines with more than one processor, letting it out-perform standard DOS and Windows. It would feature industrial-strength security and stability.

But NT 3.1, the first version (named to appear to be in common with just-released Windows 3.1), like many other Microsoft first releases, underwhelmed the market. It looked just like Windows 3.1, but ran slower. It took up (for its time), a lot of hard drive space, and required a lot of ram-and compared with today, large hard drives and ram were expensive and rare. It isolated software from direct access to the hardware; this was vital for improving stability, but meant that many DOS programs, and some standard Windows programs simply wouldn't run. And there were virtually no 32-bit Windows programs to take advantage of NT's strengths.

The next versions, NT 3.5 and 3.51 were better-performance was improved, ram requirements were a bit lower. And Microsoft made a clever move-while developing Windows 95 for the mass market, they announced that 32-bit applications for Win 95 wanting official Microsoft approval would need to run under NT as well. (Or at least refuse to run gracefully!) In a stroke, they created a critical mass of applications that provided native performance under NT as well as Win 95. NT 3.51 picked up sales, and could run on RISC processors including Digital's Alpha, the MIPS series (mostly on machines from NEC), and on PowerPCs, it still featured the now old-fashioned Windows 3.x interface.

Enter Version 4

Version 4 brings the newer, Windows 95-style user interface to NT. Like earlier versions, it comes in two flavours: server and workstation. We're going to focus on the later-it sells for less, and will be used by more users. As the name suggests, the higher-priced Server version is aimed at corporate local area network servers, replacing and working alongside Novell Netware servers.

While NT 4.0, like earlier versions, supports multi-processor machines, and a variety of CPU models, the bulk of its sales are expected to be on single-processor Intel (or Intel-clone) computers-Pentiums and Pentium-Pros. In theory, it will run on a machine with as little as 12 megs ram... but then again, Windows 95 will run, in theory on a 4 meg machine. NT on a 16 meg machine is like Win 95 on an 8 meg machine... the bare minimum for acceptable low-end performance. Expect to install at least 24 megs (better 32 megs) to keep users happy running NT while multitasking a couple of large applications. Set aside 90-120 megs of disk space for this operating system. With 1 gig and bigger hard drives now standard, this should not be a problem.

NT 4.0 will run on a 486, but expect to install it on Pentiums or better. Unlike Windows 95, it makes good use of the newer Pentium-Pro series CPU; like OS/2, it is a fully 32-bit operating system, and when running 32-bit software, it will fly on a Pentium-Pro.

It falls behind Windows 95, however, in a couple of areas. Plug and Play is not yet well-supported. In fact, in installing NT onto a new system, it may make sense to first install Win 95. Note the hardware settings detected by Win 95, and write them down, using that information to properly set up NT. As well, NT 4.0 uses a new driver model-as a result, neither Win 95 or older NT drivers can be used. Initially, fewer hardware options are supported. Make sure any hardware on your systems are on the approved for NT 4.0 list available on the Internet at To make matters worse, unlike Windows 95, you cannot use older DOS-level drivers for unsupported devices. If there is no NT 4.0 driver, you're out of luck.

It also doesn't support Advanced Power Management or hot-removal of PC-Cards... as a result, it is a poorer choice of an operating system for laptops than Windows 95.

Along with the new, Windows 95-style interface, however, NT includes support for most of Windows 95's new programming initiatives-ActiveMovie, DirectDraw, DirectInput, and DirectSound are supported. As a result, NT 4.0 will provide a better multimedia and game platform than earlier versions of NT; if users expect to run many DOS games, however, they should expect to boot to DOS... NT 4.0 does support multiple Operating Systems. All versions of NT also support the NTFS file system, which provides better support for large hard disks (greater than 1 gig) than the old DOS FAT or even Win 95's new FAT-32.

Your Questions Answered

* Will NT 4.0 replace Windows 95?

No. Windows 95 will remain popular, and will outsell NT for the next few years. It remains a better choice for most home and small business systems, and for virtually all portable computers. Expect to have to provide both Windows 95 and NT 4.0 as options. In fact, some users will prefer to stick with tried-and-true Windows 3.1-20 million units of that will be sold in 1996.

* What systems should come with NT 4.0 standard?

Expect your standard NT 4.0 system to be a high-end Pentium, or even better, a Pentium-Pro, with 32-megs of ram and a 2 gig hard drive. Include a CD-ROM and 16-bit sound card, but make sure that both (along with your video card) have NT 4.0 drivers (older NT drivers don't count). But be sure to include DOS and Windows 3.1 drivers as well, with all systems, allowing users the option to boot to DOS if needed.

* Who will be the target NT 4.0 customer?

NT 4.0 is being targeted at a business users, connected to a local area network. (You might want to make an NE-2000-compatible Ethernet card standard on all machines). As well, expect some sales to so-called power-users at home or in small businesses, the buyers who want to be on the cutting-edge. Or anyone wanting to purchase a Pentium-Pro and make full use of its power.

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