Windows 98 promises great interface features

but most users will need to buy new hardware Aug 12 1997

Two years ago, Microsoft's much ballyhooed release of Windows 95 was the Biggest Show on Earth.

Now, the steady work towards a replacement is taking place in a much quieter way.

The Windows 95 glass is either half full or half empty, depending on how you choose to look at it. Recent polling suggests that about 47 per cent of all personal computers are running Windows 95 -- a huge number of machines.

But that still means that over half the world's computers are running something else: Macs, OS/2, Windows NT, but most of all Windows 3.1 with owners unwilling or unable to upgrade.

While retaining more roots in the DOS/Windows 3.1 past than Microsoft admitted at the time, Windows 95 looked new. Microsoft's next system -- code-named Memphis -- will, for the most part, keep that look.

But don't expect to see it on shelves any time this year. While a first-generation beta version has gone out to 10,000 testers, Microsoft has admitted that there's no way a final release can make it onto store shelves in time for Christmas sales. And that means it won't be called Windows 97.

But Microsoft finally has committed itself to a name, and it's no surprise: it'll be Windows 98. The computer press will probably keep calling it Memphis for the next couple of months, though.

The new system is designed to integrate a whole new generation of hardware add-ons for computers. Digital Versatile Disks (DVD), for example, hold eight times as much data as a CD-ROM, and Universal Serial Bus (USB) and Firewire should make it possible to easily connect all sorts of gadgets without having to fuss around inside the case or with peculiar configuration settings. Use of these new standards, however, has been slowed by a lack of support for them at the operating-system level. Support for these and other devices built into Win98 will make DVD, videoconferencing and other cutting-edge computer use commonplace and affordable.

Win98 is also promising support for multiple video cards and monitors, a feature that Mac users have had for a while. With support for up to eight monitors at a time, graphics designers and others will really be able to spread out.

Other enhancements are already available, either as downloadable add-ins to existing systems, or, like the FAT32 file system, only with purchase of new hardware. Digital Satellite System and DirecTV support will let users view television via satellite or cable. Other features are aimed at making life easier for network administrators.

There's even an Internet System Update feature, which allows the computer to update itself over the Internet.

The other big new feature in this upgrade is the integration of the operating system with the Internet Explorer Web browser. Microsoft has tried to make the two inseparable. Users can view a live Web document, rather than just a static picture, on their desktop. This so-called Active Desktop can automatically update itself with push content from the Internet or an office intranet. That means news, weather, stock market reports, or corporate announcements can be put right in a user's face.

As well, this merger makes less distinction between a personal computer, the office network and the wide world of the Internet. All can appear seamlessly in an Explorer window. And throughout, the system will work more like a Web browser. For example, icons will act like buttons, with single-clicking replacing double-clicking. (Most of these features can be turned off for users who would rather continue to work with their old habits.)

At least for now, however, I can't see a compelling reason for many users to want to upgrade.

While the support for new hardware will benefit purchasers of next year's computers, it will be of less interest to owners of 1996 or earlier equipment. And most of the new interface features will be available to Windows 95 users who choose to get Microsoft's upcoming Internet Explorer 4.0 (IE4) release for free over the Net. (Preview versions of IE4 can already be downloaded now from www.

And maybe I'm missing something, but I just don't get it. I haven't been impressed by the move on the Internet to push content, replacing Web surfing with passive viewing. And I certainly don't want to turn my computer's desktop over to Net channels. Even if I were on a corporate network, I'd prefer to get announcements as an e-mail message, thank you. After working with Internet Explorer 4's preview for a while, I found myself turning the new interface features off, one at a time.

When it's finally released, some time next year, Windows 98 will doubtlessly sell many millions of copies, particularly bundled together with new computers. I'm sure even I'll upgrade to it, if only for the behind-the-scenes fixes and efficiency updates. Or maybe, like many businesses, I'll plan on skipping this release, and eventually move to the next version of NT.*

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