Windows 98-- A step up, but modestly so

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

Ready or not, here it comes.

Windows 98, that is.

When Microsoft announced that the might-have-been Windows 4.0 was going to carry the Windows 95 name, for many it seemed too reminiscent of the US auto makers annual model changes. Some of the press promised exclusive coverage of Windows 96 and Windows 97, products that never were.

Windows 95 didn?t stay still, however, and while the retail package stayed at the August 1995 release, bug fixes and new features being made available over the Web and to Original Equipment Manufacturers for release with new hardware.

Since late 1996, for example, OEMs have been using OEM-Service Release 2 (aka Win95b) which included the FAT32 and Internet Explorer. Even that was updated, to OEM-SR2.1, with Universal Serial Bus support, and OWM-SR2.5 with Internet Explorer 4.0.

At the same time, Microsoft, was developing its next generation product behind the scenes, and eventually came public enough to promise a replacement for Windows 95. Early in 1998, they felt confident enough to offer Win98 Beta 3 for wider distribution to media and customers wanting to get a head-start on working with the upcoming release. By the end of February, they sent out the first of a series of potential Release Candidates to the 30,000 ?official? beta test sites. Initial reports is that baring unforeseen problems (either with the software itself, or with the US Justice Department), Win 98 seems pretty much ready.

And within days of the distribution of this issue, on April 4th, they?ve booked theaters in major North American cities for a presentation of the product. With all this activity, an official release sometime in May is widely expected.

The fabled Microsoft hype machine, however, is running at a much lower pitch than in 1995. Partly, this is a response to the 1995 Windows event. Despite spending an estimated $100 million, public response was only luke-warm. A Rolling Stones jingle and an athlete climbing Toronto?s CN Tower weren?t enough when the public was really focused on the Internet.

Windows 95 sales were good, but two and a half years later, an estimated 70 million users are still working with 1992?s Win 3.1.

I?m writing this, running Win98 Beta 3? it feels stable, fast, and ready for the general public. But if Windows 95 was really Win 4.0, this isn?t Win 5.0? think of it as Windows 4.1. A real set of improvement over Win 95, but still, a basically modest upgrade, more like the Windows 3.0 to 3.1 transition of the early 1990s than the more recent Win 3.1 to Win 95 transition.

While it installs happily over Win95 and Win 3.1 systems, many current Win95 users really needn?t bother upgrading? purchasers of recent computers who already have OSR-SR2 may already be using the upgraded FAT32 file system for large hard disk support. If they?ve downloaded Microsoft Internet Explorer 4.0, they have most of the user interface changes (and like me, may have turned off Active Desktop, and returned to the ?classic? Win 95 double-click interface). Users of earlier versions of Win95 may want to upgrade if they?ve added newer, large hard drives?just to get FAT32 along with the ability to convert to that file system without destroying their current setup.

Windows 98 isn?t aimed at the existing user base, however. It?s real sales will be to purchasers of new hardware.

Along with FAT32 support for large hard drives, Win98 includes built-in support for the whole collection of new hardware? all those three-letter acronyms that have had often-disappointing sales over the past year. Support for:
? DVD drives, the next generation replacement for today?s CD-ROM
? AGP video overcoming the performance bottleneck on the PCI bus
? USB?Universal Serial Bus promising easy connection of cameras, scanners, modems, speakers, and more
? Firewire (IEEE 1394) promising even higher performance than USB, aiming at video cameras and more
? 1200 new drivers for modems, printers, and other hardware peripherals.

Other improvements, in areas like boot-up speed, On Now suspend mode, and power management require new system-level support. Expect best performance on systems with at least 22 megs of RAM?think of 32 megs as the new standard for new systems.

There has been support for USB, DVD, and the like prior to Win98, but it has tended to be patchwork, after the fact add-ons, often with disappointing performance. Having an operating system designed to support this generation of hardware will make it easier to bundle these devices into new computers, and should help with after-market sales and upgrades.

Some corporate sites are thinking of skipping Win98; they?re planning to wait for its big sibling, NT 5.0, due late in 1998 or early 1999, and offering much the same hardware support and interface, along with NT?s security, stability, and network features. NT 5.0 will be able to use the same new drivers as Win98, and as a result, will benefit from a wider range of hardware support than earlier NT versions. Unlike Win98, however, NT 5.0 systems will not be able to use existing Win95 drivers.

(This presents a dilemma for smaller hardware add-on manufacturers; if they can only afford to develop one set of drivers, should they develop a Win95-style driver package, usable by the tens of millions of existing Win95 users as well as the new Win98 customers, or should they develop a future-looking Win98 driver-set, allowing NT 5.0 users to become customers, while dropping support for the Win95 crowd? To a large extent, their choice may depend on their target market?devices aimed at corporate customers may want to ensure NT 5.0 support, while products aimed at the home-consumer market shouldn?t abandon the large Win95 customer-base just yet).

Like its predecessor Win95, however, Win98 continues to offer better backwards compatibility to DOS and Win 3.1 software, and better support for game players. Continued support for Win95 drivers is also a plus. As a result, Win98 will be the operating system choice for most home and small business users.

Expect the upcoming release of Windows 98 to help jump-start sales, both of new, consumer-oriented computer systems, and of a wide range of hardware devices.

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