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    With Pentium Pro, the endless-upgrade cycle has finally tripped over its own feet

    by Alan Zisman (c) 1996 First published in Business in Vancouver ,  Issue #323  January 2, 1996 High Tech Office  column

    For years, the auto industry profited by a neurotic market of millions of car owners convinced that if their car was more than a couple of years old, it was time to trade up to this year's model. Nowadays, many people feel that the makers of high-tech hardware and software are trying for a similar marketing model, offering more-or-less annual software upgrades, each requiring more and more powerful hardware just to keep the new version running at the same speed as last year's model.

    Sure, new operating systems and applications have more bells and whistles than the ones they're replacing, but are you actually making use of the improvements in your office? Or are you still doing the same tasks in pretty much the same way, but using new versions of your hardware and software to do it?

    For many users, the problem with the upgrading trend became all too apparent when Microsoft decided to market its replacement for the Windows 3 software series as Windows 95 rather than Windows 4.0. Users began to wonder whether this implied a Windows 96, Windows 97, and so on, with annual pressure to upgrade. (Even without date-stamping its software, Corel has made the spring release of new versions of its Corel Draw graphics product an annual event.)

    Maybe your business can justify upgrading software every year or so, upgrading hardware every two to three years, and paying on-going training costs with every change. But compulsive upgraders now have a problem: take Microsoft's newest operating system (Windows 95), and add it to hardware giant Intel's newest computer chip (the Pentium Pro, aka P6) and suddenly you get a combination that runs slower than last year's models. It's a difficult situation to justify to the company accountants when you try to explain why you need that new machine.

    Here's the problem: the Pentium Pro performs at its best with operating systems and software designed to work 32 bits at a time. So if you're using operating systems such as IBM's OS/2 WARP or Microsoft's Windows NT, or various flavours of UNIX, which are all pure 32-bit systems, the Pentium Pro flies: it's as much as double the speed of the current generation of Pentium chips, and significantly faster than Apple and IBM's Power PCs and Power Macs.

    Windows 95 is advertised as a 32-bit operating system, but it was also designed for maximum compatibility with older, 16-bit DOS and Windows programs, so it includes a great deal of 16-bit code. Run Windows 95 on your brand-new (and expensive) Pentium Pro, and that 16-bit code slows the processor down enough that it runs more slowly than an older (and much cheaper) Pentium.

    For the first time, you won't get the best performance by putting the latest software onto the latest hardware. So if you're running Windows 3-anything or Windows 95, you've got no reason to upgrade your hardware to a Pentium Pro machine. And if you have purchased this supposedly latest and greatest hardware, you may want to avoid those software generations. For maximum performance, you'll want to load OS/2 or NT or UNIX onto your Pentium Pro--but with any of those choices, you'll find that your current collection of 16-bit programs may simply not work.

    Macintosh users faced a similar dilemma two years ago when the new, hot Power Macs also needed new software versions to take advantage of their power. The difference there was that Apple produced both the hardware and the operating-system software. As a result, it has worked hard at producing "native" Power Mac versions of its system software, and has encouraged independent software developers to get Power Mac software products out to market.

    In the current situation, the hardware producer (Intel) and the software producer (Microsoft) seem to be at loggerheads. Intel claims not to be concerned, hoping that over time, more and more of Windows 95 will be replaced with pure 32-bit software code or that purely 32-bit Windows NT will eventually be the operating system running on most desktops.

    These scenarios may become reality in the long run, but for today, while a powerful Pentium Pro machine may be a good choice for a network server running Unix or NT, it will be hard to justify for the large numbers of business or home desktops running Windows 95 or Windows 3.1. And if that slows down some compulsive upgrading, that might not be such a bad thing.

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