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ISSUE 520: The high-tech office- Oct 12 1999


Microsoft's many Windows are not created equal

A couple of weeks ago, we tried to help make sense of the multitude of CPU options confusing potential PC purchasers. This time, we're taking a look at the many flavours of Microsoft Windows competing for your operating system dollars. (If you're a Mac user, or are running your PCs on Linux or OS/2, don't despair, you're not forgotten.)

Windows is an operating environment. A computer with just Windows on it doesn't do much. Windows, however, provides your real applications with the tools they need to run.

Depending who you ask, some 85 to 90 per cent of the world's computers are running some version of Windows and, unlike computer processors and other hardware, they're all de-
pendent on a single company -- Microsoft. Still, there are enough versions around that it sometimes seems like Microsoft is busy competing with itself and confusing its customers.

While Windows has seemingly been everywhere for the past five or six years, the product was first released way back in November 1985. The first couple of versions were not well accepted, however. I'd be surprised if anyone is actually running versions 1 or 2 of Windows anymore.

The big bang in the Windows universe started with the 1990 release of Windows 3.0, followed by version 3.1 two years later. Again, while hardly anyone still uses version 3.0, many businesses continue to run Windows 3.1 or 1994's Windows for Workgroups 3.11. In fact, Windows 3.1 or bare DOS sold more than a million copies in 1998. For businesses running a limited set of older, perhaps custom-written software, it's quite reasonable to stay with these older systems, particularly if they have a mix of older and newer hardware.

The Microsoft hype machine peaked with the release of Windows 95 in, you guessed it, 1995. A $100-million ad campaign promised to "Start You Up." And while businesses only slowly moved from Windows 3.1 to 95, the newer version is now the most widely used. In 1998, it accounted for 57.4 per cent of operating environments shipped worldwide. Most everyone has seen its interface somewhere.

Quietly, Microsoft released at least five different versions, following up the original with Win95A through D. I prefer Win95B, which combined bug fixes with support for large hard drives without the extra bulk of features such as Active Desktop, which slow down the later releases until users learn to turn them off.

The release of Windows 98 was quieter, and with good reason. While this version has some nice features, it is at best a modest update of Windows 95. There is no urgent reason for businesses running Win95 to upgrade to the later version.

Many people continue to specify Windows 95 on new computer purchases to keep their systems consistent. This year, Microsoft released a Windows 98 Second Edition. It's single new feature, Internet Connection Sharing, is aimed more at home than business users.

Starting in 1993, Microsoft began offering an operating system, Windows NT, aimed primarily at larger enterprises. NT comes in different packages for small to medium-sized servers and for desktop users. On the surface, the various versions of NT look much like the corresponding version of Windows.

NT 3.1 through 3.51 resemble Windows 3.1, while NT 4.0 looks like Windows 95. Under the hood, NT was redesigned from scratch and offers stronger security. Unlike Windows 95, the user log-on is for real. (Windows 95's log-on can be defeated by simply pressing the Escape key. It only looks secure.)

NT however, requires more computer power than Windows 95, while supporting fewer types of computers and add-on peripherals. Although it has become the standard in some larger enterprises, it isn't really aimed at the broader market. As a result, NT Workstation account-
ed for about 11 per cent of 1998 operating system shipments. As well, NT 4.0 has required a seemingly endless series of service packs add-
ing features while patching security holes. If you're using NT 4.0, make sure you're running at the level of Service Pack 3 or later.

You may be getting your work done running an older version, but Microsoft isn't finished upgrading its series of Windows models. Windows 2000 is nearing release. As I write, Release Candidate 2 is being mailed out to several hundred thousand testers. Despite the name, it is not really intended to replace Windows 95/98. Instead, it is the next generation of NT and was originally given the less confusing NT 5.0 moniker. It adds better plug and play hardware support to NT, with a slightly updated user interface.

Microsoft is also in the early stages of testing a 95/98 update, code-named Millennium. It appears to be loaded with multimedia features aimed mostly at home users. Business users, it appears, are expected to migrate to Windows 2000. *

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