1995 in Review

by Alan Zisman (c) 1996. First published in Computer Player, January 1996

1995... Fve years from now, we may look back at this one as the year when it all started to change.

The Year of Windows 95-- or Was It?

The year began by waiting for Windows 95. Whether you were a Microsoft fan or Microsoft-basher, a lot of the year was spent on hold, waiting for what had initially been promised for late ?94. Software product releases were delayed, software and hardware purchases were postponed, all in anticipation of the Win-95 debut. At New Years, this was promised by April-- then postponed again until August, finally sprung with full ceremony on August 24th, along with a recycled, early-?80s Rolling Stones jingle-- ?Start Me Up?.

The multi-million dollar publicity campaign, along with the several delays, made this debut almost an anti-climax, and the over 10 million copies sold (including pre-installation on new computers) seemed like a disappointment in light of overly-hyped promises made by some self-proclaimed experts (predictions of 20 million to 70 million copies sold by years end were seen).

Windows 95 is a good product, a big improvement over DOS + Windows 3.1... but it isn?t the total Plug and Play productivity solution that some think Microsoft promised. Some of its features are still too complex or non-intuitive (such as the Exchange e-mail center). And after all is said and done, it?s just an operating system-- not a religion, not a way of life.

Windows 95 (or -96 or -97) will probably become the primary desktop operating system over the next few years... but these years will be one of a slow transition. Tens of millions of computers will continue to run older versions of the operating systems, just as an estimated 70 million computers just run DOS even today. For the next couple of years, smart software (and hardware) developers, will continue to make their products compatible with DOS and Win 3.1, while perhaps including features that will require Windows 95 for full use (as is the case with the new Adobe Pagemaker 6.0).

One of the emerging software trends that Windows 95 demonstrated was the extent to which CD-ROMs had penetrated the market. Microsoft was surprised by how many Win 95 purchasers chose CD over floppy versions; in some places, there was a shortage of CD versions, while the floppy packages cluttered the shelves. It?s been pointed out that the early-adopters of Win 95 were likely to be the same people who?d added CD-ROMs onto their computers, but CDs have clearly become vitally important, for games and educational software, but also increasingly for large operating systems and business applications.

Even though it will be several years before Windows 95 fully reaches its potential, Microsofts operating system competitors will have few opportunities. IBM is withdrawing from the desktop operating system field-- choosing instead to focus OS/2 on the corporate market. Apple seems to have missed its chance to broaden the Mac?s base through licensed clones... while their customer base remains loyal, their percentage of the growing market is slowly shrinking, outside of the education and graphics/publishing strongholds.

At the high end, Microsoft?s NT continued to slowly creep up on both Unix and Novell Netware; while both of these competitors continue to hold the largest share of their respective markets, neither seems able to demonstrate any faith in their own futures. Even Unix?s new-found advantage as the natural way to launch an Internet server may prove short-lived.

There was little new and exciting in applications this past year-- software developers seemd cautious-- waiting for Windows 95, and unwilling to commit themselves to projects that might have to be changed depending on late-breaking news. (Developers, perhaps, were remembering what happened in the late ?80s, when many developed for OS/2, only to be caught unprepared for the popularity of Windows 3.0). Even the first generation of Win 95 products seemed cautious-- even from Microsoft, products like Office-95 offered evolutionary improvements over the previous generation, but no ?must-have? applications have yet been unveiled.

Instead of innovation, most of the software news in 1995 was in the area of high finance. Merger-mania continued, highlighted by IBM?s purchase of Lotus, but also with California?s Symantec buying Canada?s Delrina. And the opposite happened at year?s end, with Novell backing out of its purchase of Word Perfect (and UnixWare), to concentrate on its key networking business.

Gizmos and Gadgets-- at a Price

PC hardware developments offered a bit more. 1995 first saw rapidly plummeting hard drive prices, making 800 meg- 1 gig hard drives the norm in new business systems. By summer, Pentium CPUs outsold 486s, with the later promising to virtually disappear, at least from new desktop systems by early 1996. Intel?s next generation Pentium-Pro (formerly the P6) will be a harder sell, however. Designed for a true 32-bit operating system, it produces minimal performance improvements on hybrid 16-bit/32-bit software including both Windows 3.1 and Win 95. As a result, competitors to Intel, such as AMD and Cyrix have a chance to increase their share of the CPU market in the next year.

A big disappointment this year, however, has been the Apple-Motorola-IBM Power PC alliance. Aside from the successful Power Mac line, the alliance has been unable to bring a credible version of their CPU to market. If they cannot make inroads into the Windows/Intel market in 1996, the alliance may have missed their chance for broad acceptance.

RAM prices remained relatively high, however, and combined with users? need for more ram, drove up the average price of computer systems. Where in 1993 and 1994, users could buy an average home system for under $2000, systems now cost $2500-3000. These provide more-- a faster, more powerful CPU, a larger hard drive, more ram, and more often, CD-ROM and sound built-in, but it does make it harder for some potential buyers to get into the market. With continued ram-hungry operating systems and applications, don?t expect prices to drop any time soon.

Several hardware trends all featured increased performance and ease of use-- particularly for PC owners. Modems running at the now standardized 28.8 kbs V.34 became increasingly affordable... and will likely remain the standard for the next several years, as they represent the limit to what can be sent over copper telephone lines. Higher speed ISDN and cable alternatives will show up, but will take several years to become standardized and inexpensive.

The awkward PCMCIA acronym disappeared, being replaced with the easier to remember PC Cards, which this year, finally became a reasonably standardized and easy to use way to work with portable computers. And portable computers themselves became almost a commodity item-- making up over 25% of all computers sold in 1995, they became almost as powerful as the average desktop unit, though still at a price premium of 40% or more.

New devices using PC parallel or serial ports made it more possible to add hardware to a PC without having to open the case or fuss with mysterious IRQ and DMA settings. Combined with Plug and Play features in Windows 95 (and new computer BIOSs), these finally made it possible to imagine a PC being as easy to configure as a Mac.

New hardware product categories included low-cost page scanners, complete with OCR software promising an end to office paper mess, and multifunction units, combining printer, scanner, and plain-paper fax into an affordable solution for many small offices. Low cost tape drives, featuring 800 meg Travan tapes, offer back-up hopes even with today?s larger hard disks. And high capacity removable disks, especially Iomega?s 100 meg ZIP drive, continually out-sold supply. The same promises to be true with next year?s model-- Iomega?s 1 gig Jaz drive.

And of course, CD-ROMs and multimedia extended their reach-- now about half of all computers sold for the home market include these features, as do an increasing (though still minority) of the computers sold to the business market. Increasingly, the home market is being driven by the needs of game players, and that includes a fast CPU, lots of ram, and a fast CD-ROM and good sound.

Look to next year for the new wave of CD-ROMs... at year?s end, a new format was agreed upon, promising multi-gigabytes of data per disk (compared to about 600 megs right now), along with more easily writable disks. Of course, these new disks will be incompatible with the current generation of hardware, making for a combination of problems, and a new upgrade opportunity.

The big news in 1995 was the Internet...

More and more users, more and more Web pages. Internet Service Providers advertising on billboards along streets in Vancouver. What?s happening this week on the Web appearing alongside TV listings in the newspaper. The newspaper itself appearing on the Web.

At the same time, concerns about whether financial transactions on the Web would be secure. And concerns about bandwidth-- whether the Internet would collapse under the weight of increased use and increased expectations. My predictions? The days of unmetered Internet access are limited-- right now, I can read Time Magazine for free every Monday on the Web, where the complete text appears sooner than copies reach subscribers. Clearly, as soon as Time can find a way to bill be for the service, they will. Similarly, it is only a matter of time before users get billed for e-mail... right now, it costs virtually the same to send one e-mail message as to send 5000 copies... and the same to send a message to a user on the same system as in Australia. enjoy it-- it won?t last.

The hot technology currently being touted is Hot Java, a programming language from Sun. Currently, Web sites are passive-- users read information, look at graphics, maybe fill in a form. Java enables Web sites to become interactive; Web servers can house Java applications that can run on any computer that?s logged in, regardless of platform. The speculation is that could make operating systems and platforms irrelevent, as anyone could log into a Web site, and run the same applications.

Sun, Oracle, and other big companies are currently discussing the prospect of a $500 Internet connection computer-- a minimal machine, that will run Java applications from Web servers. But the big problem is bandwidth again, and transmission speed. None of this is practical as long as you and I have to rely on modems and phone lines to access the Net. Cable modems? Fibre optics? Wide Area Networking? Not yet, I?m afraid.

Despite this, Internet browser company Netscape is being hyped as the next big thing-- the Microsoft of the next ten years, if you will... Maybe, but not right away. Despite their wildly successful stock offering this past Fall, they remain a company with miniscule sales, and according to founder James Clark, if they turn a profit next year, it will be by accident.

Personally, I consider the Internet wildly over-hyped, and suspect that we?ll see the beginings of a reaction in the next year, as users (as with Win 95) find a gap between the hype and the reality. Another shakedown is looming as the big cable and phone companies make a move on the currently lucrative, but primarily local Internet Service Provider market.

Despite all this uncertainty, the Internet remains an important emerging frontier for computing. It is quite possible that we won?t see much in the way of innovation for stand-alone personal computers... there?s only so much that can be done with word processing or spreadsheets, after all. The Internet is where the action is going to be for the next while-- but don?t expect that problems with security and bandwidth will be solved any time soon.

Happy computing in 1996!

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