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    As the official release date approaches, the next big question about Windows 95 is: should I buy it now?

    by Alan Zisman (c) 1995 First published in Business in Vancouver ,  Issue #301  August 1, 1995 High Tech Office  column

    I can almost see the ever-boyish grin of Bill Gates, now officially the richest person in the world, shouting: "Ready or not... here I come."
    After more than two years of testing, the several-times-delayed Windows 95 has gone to Microsoft's manufacturing department in order to get millions of packages of the approximately $100 software product into stores in time for the August 24 official release date.

    And with an expected US$85-million advertising budget, you can bet that there will be a lot of pressure to run right out and buy.

    Should you succumb to that pressure? What do you stand to gain by upgrading to Windows 95? What will the real costs be?

    I've been running Windows 95 since last fall, watching the product evolve. Initially, I had a long list of hardware and software problems, but by late spring, all my concerns had been dealt with: the last versions of Windows 95 have worked as advertised (with one exception, as we'll see).

    If you switch to Windows 95, here's what you'll get:

    * A much improved interface. The start button and taskbar, in particular, are easier to use than the old program manager, and solve many of the problems that new users have when they try to run multiple programs. While there is a learning curve involved in switching from old Windows, it is a short one, aided by built-in tutorial features. And if you prefer, you can choose to use the old program manager interface.

    * Plug and Play. The new Windows comes with support for a large number of printers, networks, sound, CD-ROM and other hardware. It is a much easier task to add new hardware, or even old hardware designed prior to the new Plug and Play standards.

    * More stable performance. Win 95 provides better support for DOS programs and for multitasking new Windows software. While it doesn't entirely eliminate the use of system resources, which often limited the number of programs a Windows 3.1 user could run at once, it does a much better job of handling them, so you'll get faster video, CD-ROM, and printing.

    * Long filenames. As Macintosh users can attest, calling a file "Third-quarter budget estimates" is much handier than being forced to live with "3qbudest.doc." Windows 95 out-Macs the Mac, allowing 256 character filenames (compared to the Mac's 32 letters). Win 95 users will quickly discover, however, that their old software will still only use the old eight-character DOS filenames: you need new, Windows 95-aware software to use this feature.

    And there are lots of other features--built-in networking, with good support for your existing Netware networks. Internet access. A "recycle bin" for easy access to deleted files. And more. (Yes, Macintosh and OS/2 users can point out that most of these features have been available in their respective systems for some time now: that doesn't matter, as the market has shown that most computer users don't consider either as a real option.)

    On the other hand, businesses supporting a large number of PCs should take a deep breath before placing their orders. Consider:

    * Microsoft would like us to believe that Windows 95 is an ideal upgrade for anyone with a 386 or better with at least four megs of RAM. I've installed it on several machines with four megs of RAM, and found that while it would run on those machines, performance was significantly poorer than with Windows 3.1. I'd recommend at least eight megs before upgrading. As well, you'll need at least 60 megs of free hard-drive space before starting the install.

    That leaves out a large number of machines currently used by businesses. Some estimates suggest that 39 per cent of the 200 million or so PCs in use worldwide can efficiently run Windows 95, while the majority cannot. Are the current benefits of Windows 95 worth the cost of upgrading or replacing the rest?

    * The improved multitasking and long-filename support will be most useful with software upgraded for Windows 95. While Windows 95 will work fine with your current software (except for disk utilities, backup programs, and the like) and will improve resource-handling, it isn't designed to recognize long filenames for those programs.

    Software developers are hard at work getting their next-generation products ready--many will be made available along with Windows 95's August release, with most others coming out within the next few months. But are users ready to pay to upgrade the bulk of their business applications, particularly when the benefits (aside from long filenames) are not yet clear?

    There are fears, rumours, and uncertainty surrounding any major change, and this one is no exception. Many users suspect that, like other big software releases with numbers ending in "0," Windows 95.0 will be buggy: they think that they'll be better off waiting for version 95.1. Undoubtedly, Windows 95 won't be perfect, and there will be bug-fixes over the next few months, but the product seems remarkably stable for such a large project.

    Others suspect that Windows 95 is an interim product--that Microsoft would really like us all to be using Windows NT at some point in the next couple of years when we're more likely to have computers with more than 16 megs of RAM, and no more need to run old DOS programs. They may be right, but for now, with the current hardware and software mix, Windows 95 will have a big market.

    So what's a business user to do? I would recommend waiting. You'll be using Windows 95 soon anyway--any new machines will almost certainly come with it already installed. But I wouldn't rush into upgrading existing machines unless there's a compelling business application that requires it. But don't be too surprised if that day comes sooner, rather than later.

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