--Alan Zisman

PC users know it's springtime because Microsoft is preparing
to release the latest version of its Windows operating system - March 31 1998

Spring is here at last, and along with the seasonal flowers come rumours of new operating systems. That's been the trend in the last couple of years since Microsoft chose to release what might have been Windows 4.0 as Windows 95. As a result, there have been flurries of rumours concerning Windows 96 and Windows 97 -- both remaining, however, in the might-have-been category.

By contrast, this spring's Windows 98 looks like it will blossom into a real flower. Microsoft has (at the time of writing) booked theatres across the country (including Robson Square) for an April 4 preview and has announced June 25 as the release date.

The 1995 version was sprung on the world with all the hubbub that a $100-million publicity campaign can produce. This time around, expect something a little more modest.

The modesty is in keeping with the nature of the product. While Windows 95 was a dramatic change from previous versions of Windows, offering, among other features, a new user interface, Windows 98 promises more of an evolution -- more like the change from Windows 3.0 to 3.1 than the whole new thing we saw last time around. In fact, many of the changes are already available.

In the three years since the last major release, prices for computer memory and hard drives have plummeted. It's difficult to buy a new hard drive smaller than 2.1 gigabytes. The original Windows 95 version could support large hard drives, but only by chopping them up into multiple partitions, potentially confusing users and leading to misplaced data.

A quiet upgrade, Windows 95B, has featured FAT32, an improved file system recognizing large drives as a single partition. This version, however, hasn't been available on the retail market; it came only with the purchase of new hardware, since it lacked an easy way to convert existing hard drives to FAT32.Windows 98 will offer FAT32's advantages to upgraders, along with a workable conversion utility.

The interrelation between Windows and Microsoft's Internet Explorer Web browser has been an issue before the U.S. courts. In Windows 98, there's no issue -- Internet Explorer 4 is deeply interwoven with the operating system. Look for a file on your hard drive using Win98's Explorer or My Computer, and you're actually using the Web browser.

In fact, you can type a Web address in My Computer, and browse a Web site in your file manager, complete with browser-like Back and Forward buttons. The background of individual folders or the Desktop itself can become a Web page, complete with text and graphics. When you do that, files and folders become buttons and links, opening with a single-click as in your browser, rather than with a double-click.

These changes have been available to Win95 users who added Microsoft's free Internet Explorer 4 and, as with that version, can be turned off by users who prefer to remain with the "classic" Windows 95 way of working. You can use another Web browser, such as Netscape Navigator, if you prefer, and there are hints that Microsoft will keep the U.S. Department of Justice happy by releasing a version of Windows 98 that doesn't include its Web browser as an icon, but even in those cases the Internet Explorer technology is present.

Windows 98 also adds support for other hardware that has been released in the past few years -- hundreds of new printers and modems are supported, along with whole new categories of devices: high-capacity DVD drives, Universal Serial Bus and Firewire to attach scanners, video cameras and more, as well as Accelerated Graphics Port video cards.

The lack of operating system support has slowed acceptance of these new hardware add-ons; the release of Windows 98 will make it easier to use them, at least with new computers.

As an incremental upgrade to Windows 95, the new version still offers support for older DOS and Windows 3.1 software and hardware, and still includes the limitations and lack of security of the older version. Users valuing stability and security over backwards compatibility may want to wait for Windows NT, with a new version 5.0 promised for late 1998 or early 1999.

Unless users want to upgrade to FAT32, current Windows 95 customers may find little in this version motivating them to upgrade right away -- but they should expect to find Win98 bundled with their next computer purchase.

If you can't wait for June 25, however, Microsoft is offering the December Beta 3 version for purchase at about $45. If you expect to be installing and supporting a large number of Win98 systems, a better value is Microsoft Press's $100 Windows 98 Resource Kit (Beta Release) (ISBN: 1-57231-878-3), 1,500 pages of technical information, including a CD with Beta 3 of the operating system and a collection of administration tools.

In either case, don't expect a rebate on the official shipping version.*

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