--Alan Zisman

Microsoft's Windows 98 is selling well
but questions remain about its usability

Windows 98 has been out in the world for about a month now, and has already sold more than a million units through retailers -- and that's not counting the huge number of copies preinstalled on new computers.

That's about the same number of units sold as for its predecessor, Windows 95, and without the $100 million that Microsoft spent publicizing Win 95.

(Of course, cynics point out that since there are many more computers today than in '95, the percentage of PC users rushing to upgrade to Win 98 is lower than the comparable rate for Windows 95.)

And Microsoft is pleased to point to polls that seem to prove that 90 per cent of Windows 98 upgraders claim to be "satisfied" or "very satisfied."

Nevertheless, all is not rosy in Windows
98 land.

Despite a long development process (re-
member rumours of Windows 96 and 97?) and thousands of pre-release beta testers instal-
ling not-quite-ready-yet versions, there is a simmering underground of users reporting difficulties converting systems that were happily running in earlier versions. Within a week of the release of Windows 95, a number of big computer manufacturers --including Dell, IBM, Hewlett-Packard and others -- posted notices on their Web sites warning owners of specific models to avoid upgrading, or to wait until Windows 98-capable fixes for their models were ready.

(All this seems a bit surprising to me -- certainly these manufacturers had lots of warning that Windows 98 was on its way, and lots of opportunity to fix these sorts of problems in advance of the not-very-secret release date.)

Big U.S. mail-order company Gateway, for example, is sending out a CD-ROM to its customers to walk them through the upgrade process, automatically installing the proper patches and fixes for their specific model, prior to installing Windows 98.

Many large companies are planning to skip Windows 98, expecting instead to upgrade to Windows NT 5.0 when that version is released in '99 (or later), and not wanting the hassle of supporting a mix of Windows 95 and 98 systems in the meantime.

Microsoft has been subtly promoting that viewpoint, and the new features in Windows 98 seem more focused on home users than big businesses.

In fact, Windows 98's Windows Update feature, which lets users log on to a Microsoft Internet site and upload and install new software components, brings a look of horror onto the faces of many big business IS managers, afraid as they are of having to manage a company full of computers, each with its own different set of software.

Some have gone so far as to ban Windows 98 from their companies, or to let employees know that the company will not support them if they upgrade on their own.

On top of those issues, though, a minority of users have reported bugs -- hardware such as modems failing to work, installation failures and more.

Microsoft claims that Win 98 fixes more than 3,000 Windows 95 bugs, but there are worries that it introduces a new set of bugs all its own.

In fact, Win 98 was barely a week old before Microsoft an-
nounced a Service Pack was on its way -- and then back-pedalled. Well, yes, a Service Pack was coming right up, but it was not really a bug-fix; it was more to add multimedia enhancements that weren't quite ready for Windows 98's release date.
(And why wasn't the release date held up to include these features?)

When I upgraded my notebook to Windows 98, it started to shut itself down, a problem related to Win 98's presumably improved power management.

Some upgraders, faced with problems up-
grading an existing Windows 95 installation, have had better luck erasing everything on the drive and installing Windows 98 onto a clean hard drive. That, in fact, is what I did. Before trying that at home, boys and girls, make sure you have a good backup of your data files!

In May, faced with U.S. Justice Department pressure, Microsoft held a press conference. Together with Compaq and others, Microsoft suggested that any government-forced delay in releasing Win 98 would result in catastrophe for the computer industry and perhaps the U.S. economy as a whole.

Was Windows 98 rushed out the door before it was ready in order to beat government action? (In fact, new PC sales rose 37 per cent in the month following Win 98's release.)

Or was it rushed out to give customers something new to buy while NT 5.0 was delayed?

A peculiar Win 98 story emerged when a Vancouver Internet service provider, MDI Internet, started receiving complaints from confused and upset Windows 98 customers. It seems that when they used Win 98's Front Page Express to try to upload newly created Web pages to their ISP, they received a message suggesting: "You might want to try selecting 'other Internet provider' from the list of Internet service providers."

Microsoft has responded that this isn't really a not-so-subtle attempt to move customers from independent ISPs to something like the Microsoft Network. Microsoft's product manager for Front Page, Priscilla Mistele, has said that they will change these messages.*

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