A Tale of Two Operating Systems

by Alan Zisman (c) 1998. First published in Computer Player, April 1998.

?It was the best of times; it was the worst of times?? Like in the famous novel by Charles Dickens, change is in the air. For some computer users, that?s exciting. For others, a time of foreboding.

Okay. Maybe I exaggerate.  It?s not like the French Revolution. Heads will not roll.

Still, when the Windows 3.1 upgrade was given the name ?Windows 95?, it suggested annual model changes, like in the auto industry. But there was no Windows 96. No Windows 97. Finally, though, we?ve been promised a Windows 98? perhaps as early as May 1st. As with the coming of Spring, signs are everywhere.

The Win98 books are being readied at the publishers, aiming for May publication dates. Microsoft Press has already released a Windows 98 Resource Kit?Beta Version, (US$55.99)complete with beta version on CD, for those who just have to have a copy before Microsoft deems it ready for commercial release.

Nevertheless, all indications are that Windows 98 will not be subject to the major hype that attended the August 24 1995 release of its predecessor. No Rolling Stones jingle, no daredevils scaling Toronto?s CD Tower. No midnight lineups outside software stores.

And much less of a dramatic change from Windows 95 than that product was from Win 3.11.

Windows 98 is much more modest, and to a large extent is simply gathering together in a single package pieces that were already available:

? Fat32 file system, allowing use of large hard drives, which has been part of Win95B since October 1996, though not officially included with the retail upgrade package. Finally with a utility to convert existing Fat16 drives without destroying the data
? Active Desktop and Internet Explorer 4, freely available from the Internet
? DirectX 5.0, which again is freely downloadable, and included with many newer games

In addition, there?s support for hardware devices that have emerged since 1995?DVD, Universal Serial Bus, Accelerated Graphics Port, Firewire, better power management for notebook users.

Finally, a few new features. Multiple monitor support (yes, like the Mac OS since 1988). Support for TV based on features already available on ATI?s All-in-Wonder-series video cards.

Should you hurry to get it?

Not necessarily.

Active Desktop, IE 4, and DirectX 5 are available for free if you want/need them (personally, I don?t care for the Active Desktop interface features though I know others who like them).

If you?re purchasing a new computer to take advantage of the new-generation hardware, you?ll most likely be getting Win98 as part of the package anyway.

Win98 looks like the end of the Win9x line of operating systems? making it the last step in an evolution that started with DOS. Microsoft is planning to build future models based on the NT core?with separate lines for big business and small business/consumer users. Prior to that is the next NT release, NT 5.0, due late this year or early next.

Meanwhile, there?s action over on the Mac side of the force as well.

Last summer brought us the release of OS 8.0. While a best-seller, in many ways, it seemed to me like a catch-up-to-Win95 release.

It?s easy to focus on what Microsoft?s products have borrowed from the Mac, but OS 8.0 brought Mac users popup context menus and sticky drop-down menus, all long-time Windows features. Programs minimized to  little tabs lined up on the bottom of the screen, look suspiciously similar to the Win95 Taskbar. And while Windows, has offered a 3D ?chiseled steel? look, the always classier and more expensive Mac now sports a 3D platinum appearance.

Winter brought Mac users OS 8.1? some bug-fixes, and a new file system: HFS+. With less cluster waste and support for bigger drives, it meets exactly the same needs as Microsoft?s Fat32. And it comes with the same catches as the Win95B version of Fat32? an installation process that destroys your existing data, resulting in a hard drive that can?t be read if you boot to an earlier operating system version. (And like Win95B users, who could purchase a third party utility?Partition Magic to non-destructively upgrade file systems, Mac users can look for Alsoft PlusMaker to do Apple one better).

Unlike Microsoft, who discouraged upgrading from Win95 to Win95B, Apple has made the upgrade from OS 8.0 to OS 8.1 freely available via the Net or low-cost CD.

But just as Microsoft is offering NT as the industrial-strength alternative, Apple is promising Rhapsody?the upcoming merger of the Mac look and feel with power and performance brought over from Steve Jobs? NeXT. But like NT, not being touted for the home/small business users, Apple also promising two parallel operating system families.

Some of us feel like we just have to have the latest?and hope it will automatically be the greatest. Most of us, however, should take our time, resist temptation and hype, and upgrade only when there?s something offering clear benefits.

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