Business in Vancouver: News that works for you

    Operating systems lose their allure as computer users settle for good enough

    by Alan Zisman (c) 1995 First published in Business in Vancouver ,  Issue #280 March 7, 1995 High Tech Office  column

    It used to be that lots of computer users cared about their operating system, and got excited by the idea of change. You didn't have to be just the minority who live and breathe computers, either: using a Mac or a PC or even an Amiga was part of who you were. Any big change in an operating system (OS) was anticipated with some mix of hope and fear.

    Ideally, the OS would be taken for granted, and fade into the background, like a comfortable old pair of shoes. But the programs you really want to run depend on the operating system, and changes to it can make your computer more efficient, or your current software obsolete, forcing expensive upgrades and whole new ways of working. And a big enough change can give your computer a whole new personality-- think of adding Windows or OS/2 to a character-mode DOS machine.

    So I used to get a lot of questions. When did I think the new version of DOS would be out? Was the Mac's System 7 really better? Would Windows 3.1 be more stable? Should I switch to OS/2?

    But it seems like nobody cares anymore. When Microsoft pushed back its planned release of Windows 95 from May to August in the wake of Intel's Pentium debacle, no one was surprised-- they hadn't expected Microsoft to meet its much-delayed timetable anyway.

    Two years ago, the groans would have been audible from here to Redmond, Washington, but since then, a lot has happened.

    * Windows NT was hyped as the next big thing. It wasn't. It was too big, too slow, and ultimately, not really aimed at the average desktop. Now people seem reluctant to get excited about the same line, this time applied to Windows 95... even if it turns out to be justified.

    * OS/2 became, in many ways, the hacker's dream system, but remains too difficult to install and just won't run on too many systems. Still, it's provided an outlet for the people who are the most discontented with Microsoft's products and domination of the market.

    * Even with its success in the difficult transition to the Power Mac, Apple seems fated to remain a niche-player, with a loyal customer base of page-designers and graphics specialists. Who would have thought we'd see the day when they tried to sell the family jewels-- their operating system --to one-time enemy IBM?

    * Finally, it seems as if Windows 3.1 has become the unchallenged standard, warts and all. The delays in getting Windows 95 out the door have revived the market for Windows 3 add-ons, which are really just cosmetics to cover Windows' flaws, but enough to keep many users content. As well, there's increasing realization that many users simply won't upgrade. In some cases, the current Windows is good enough, and in others, the hardware simply isn't powerful enough.

    Business in particular is justifiably wary of hopping on a new bandwagon, and many business users will wait a while until they're sure that all the bugs have been taken care of before switching to anything. There are always people who'll want to be first in line for any new thing (and for them, Microsoft has promised a pre-release version of Windows 95 for about US$30 sometime in the Spring). But the vast majority of the estimated 60 million Windows users will probably stick with their old Windows for some years to come.

    It's a telling sign that while I've been running beta versions of WIN95 since last fall, hardly any of my computer-using acquaintances have shown much interest-- virtually no one even wants to pirate the software!

    Maybe we're all bearing out the theories that Alvin Toffler offered up in his classic book, Future Shock, and hoping that the pace of change will just slow down. Or maybe we've just become bored.

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