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    Microsoft tones down the hype, but it's still pumping out new, stronger operating systems

    by Alan Zisman (c) 1996 First published in Business in Vancouver ,  Issue #360 September 17, 1996   High Tech Office  column

    Alright, all together now: Happy birthday, Microsoft Windows 95, happy...

    Doesn't quite work as cause for major celebration, does it? In fact, despite Microsoft's $100-million publicity pitch just a year ago this past August 24th, in a lot of ways, it seems as if the software giant sort of missed it on that one. The big event of 1995, in retrospect, wasn't the launch of Windows 95: it was the change of the Internet from a fad to what appears more and more to be the beginning of a new model of the way we will be doing business, communicating, publishing, making and displaying art, and more. (Ironically, the Internet is fulfilling Bill Gates' slogan of a couple of years ago: "Information at your fingertips".) Not to say that Windows 95 is a bad product--it isn't--but it's ultimately just another software upgrade, the one that finally put a pretty face on millions of Intel-based personal computers.

    Microsoft seems to have learned a couple of lessons from all this. First, starting last December, it has made the Internet the focus of much of its activities. And now, as it releases yet another Windows version, it's doing it much more quietly.

    No, this isn't Windows 96. In fact, it seems increasingly unlikely that there will be a product with that name. Maybe a Windows 97--we'll see. Instead, the company hopes that Windows NT version 4.0, with its much more serious-sounding name, will be the next generation of its operating system software to be installed on millions of computers used by big business networks.

    Although it boasts the same attractive, well-designed interface as Windows 95, this Windows isn't particularly aimed at home users or at small businesses: Microsoft sees Windows 95 as the platform for them. Instead, NT 4.0 is aimed at users who need industrial-strength stability and U.S. government-certified security.

    NT claims to need a minimum of 12 megs of RAM, but that will only let you start up the operating system. If you actually want to load a few applications and get some work done, count on at least 24 to 32 megs. (By comparison, most users find Windows 95 pretty perky with 16 megs or so.) Luckily, the price of RAM has dropped tremendously over the past year. and is now less than one-quarter of what it cost when Windows 95 came out.

    As well, NT 4.0 needs special drivers for all your hardware, so make sure all your accessories are on the list of officially supported hardware. Unlike Windows 95, it can't make do running old DOS drivers while it waits for the manufacturers to create new versions. And NT lacks the sophisticated hardware detection of last year's home model: some users have been installing Windows 95 first just to let it report on the system's hardware, then writing down the results in order to properly install NT.

    But on new, supported hardware, with enough hard-drive space and lots of RAM, this new version of NT lives up to the promises: it's rock-solid, and yet, especially on a new machine with a Pentium Pro processor, it will outperform Windows 95, which is unable to take full advantage of that high-end CPU. Because NT is fully 32-bit, it allows the Pentium Pro to run at full speed.

    Fans of IBM's OS/2, also due out with a new version, code-named Merlin, may protest that OS/2 is also a well-designed, exceptionally stable and fully 32-bit operating system, and that it too makes full use of Pentium Pros. It is, however, unable to run the new generation of 32-bit Windows software applications that require either Windows 95 or NT, so despite OS/2's many advantages, it's not an option for users tied into running the latest Windows applications.

    NT comes in two flavours at two different price points. NT Server is aimed at running the local area network server, either replacing or working alongside a Novell Netware system. An Internet server is bundled in the package. But Microsoft is hoping to sell many more copies of NT Workstation, aiming this version, stripped of the network-server features, at the business desktop market. (And I do mean desktop: if you're presently getting about two to three hours per battery charge, with Advanced Power Management to conserve battery power, expect to get 45 minutes with NT. And if you're using Win95, you're used to plugging in PC Cards, or removing them, while your computer is up and running. Not so with NT--you'll have to shut down and restart to change your cards, so stick with Win 95 on your laptop!)

    DataQuest of San Jose, California, estimates 1996 sales of almost 46 million copies of Windows 95, compared to four million copies of NT. But it estimates 21 million copies of Windows 3.1 will still be sold this year, mostly to big businesses which have hesitated to migrate to Windows 95. Microsoft is hoping that as corporations upgrade their hardware and software, the new version of NT will be the natural replacement, finally putting old DOS and Windows to rest.

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