Backpack

OPEN WINDOWS

Microsoft sets the pace in the software wars

WARREN CARAGATA August 21 1995
Backpack

OPEN WINDOWS

Microsoft sets the pace in the software wars

WARREN CARAGATA August 21 1995

OPEN WINDOWS

Backpack

TECHNOLOGY

Microsoft sets the pace in the software wars

WARREN CARAGATA

The world tour has been drawing huge crowds, there are souvenir T-shirts and a seemingly endless stream of articles in magazines and newspapers around the world. Everywhere there is an air of feverish anticipation. But the object of all the attention is not a new Rolling Stones album, a Tom Clancy thriller or even the latest Hollywood summer blockbuster. Strangely enough, the talk is all about a computer operating system—the boring nuts-and-bolts software that most people worry about only when their computers stop functioning in mid-task and demand to be turned off. By almost any measure, Microsoft’s Windows 95 has been a spectacular public relations success, even though it has yet to sell a single retail copy.

Whether Windows 95—once code-named Chicago—becomes a commercial winner awaits consumer reaction after it goes on sale on Aug. 24. But if Microsoft’s past successes are anything to go by, consumers will buy it in droves—whether separate-

ly or pre-installed on new computers— regardless of what the reviewers say about it. After all, no one much liked Microsoft’s first operating system, MSDOS, either—but it now has 150 million worldwide users, helping to make Microsoft chairman Bill Gates one of the world’s richest people. Nor were computer users particularly impressed with earlier versions of Windows, which Microsoft launched in 1990. Apple’s Macintosh operating system and IBM’s OS/2 were widely considered to be superior, but as personal computers moved into the mainstream, from office to family room, Windows won a hands-down con-

test with every other competitor.

The good news for consumers is that Windows 95 probably deserves most of the attention it has been getting. That is not to say the system is perfect—how could it be, given all of the compromises Microsoft programmers had to make to ensure that Windows 95 would work with the thousands of programs designed for DOS and earlier versions of Windows? But based on a four-week Maclean’s trial of the final pre-release copy of the operating system, Windows 95 represents a significant improvement over its predecessor, Windows 3.1. And replies from CompuServe and Internet users to a Maclean’s request for comments from other people with other pre-release copies yielded generally favorable reviews. “I love it,” said Toronto user David Wright, a geography student at York University.

Windows 95 is simpler to use than earlier Windows incarnations and is less prone to system-halting crashes. Printing and video run faster, but more important, Windows 95 sets the stage for a new generation of software that can take full advantage of the more powerful processing capacities of the 486 and Pentium-class chips now installed on new IBM-compatible computers. The system also features so-called plug and play compatibility, which means that the technical

headaches associated with installing new devices, including CD-ROM drives, printers and other accessories, will eventually be a memory. On the downside, there is the price. Gates did not get rich by giving things away. In Canada, the upgrade carries a suggested retail price of $139. Microsoft Plus!, a package of optional components, which allows 486 and Pentium users to get full value from the operating system, will add another $70.

Whether Windows 95 is worth the money, especially for non-business users, is harder to answer. But despite the jokes about whether it would ever be released—originally, Microsoft planned to have the product ready by late 1994—the company seems convinced that its latest product will be a winner. David Carter, the Windows 95 product manager for Microsoft Canada Inc., says it is reasonable to expect that about 10 per cent of the 70 million worldwide users of Windows 3.1 and its assorted cousins will make the jump in the first year. ‘We’re aiming high on this one,” he told Maclean’s. We’re really aggressive about getting people to upgrade.”

Contrary to some early speculation that users of less powerful PCs would need to invest hundreds of dollars in additional random-access memory (RAM) to run Windows 95, all that is required is at least a 386DX processor and four megabytes of RAM—although a 486 and eight megabytes are recommended. In the Maclean’s test, using a 486 PC running at 33 megahertz with eight megs of RAM, the new system performed as fast, if not faster, than Windows 3.1.

But there was one puzzling exception—Netscape, a popular application used to browse the Internet’s World Wide Web that competes with Microsoft’s own Web browser, Internet Explorer. Netscape took more than 30 seconds to load—an eternity in computer time—far longer than it did under Windows 3.1. Carter was at a loss to explain why, but says that generally 486 users with eight megabytes of RAM, “really should note some marked improvements.” He adds that even with an older 386 computer and four megabytes of RAM, Windows 95 will run just as well as Windows 3.1 since the new operating system makes more efficient use of memory. That is partly because of the way it handles the device drivers needed to use such components as printers, modems and disk

drives. In addition, Windows 95 “po-

lices” programs to make sure they free up memory when they are done with it, a common problem under the older operating system.

Nor will people have to buy new versions of their favorite software to use Windows 95, although they may want to in order to take full advantage of such features as long file names or better multi-tasking. Almost all programs designed for earlier versions of Windows will work as usual, and Microsoft says that most DOS programs, such as Doom and other popular games, will probably work better. There are, however,

exceptions and users will have to check that their favorite programs will still work.

For most users, the best part of Windows 95 is not the system’s architecture—the millions of lines of computer code below the surface that make it work. Rather, it is the surface itself, the way it looks on the screen and the way people use it, either to call up programs or to do things that involve the system itself, like finding and copying files.

Microsoft now admits that Windows 3.1 was not particularly easy to use. Windows 95 indicates that the company has learned from past mistakes. When the computer starts, Windows 95 presents a button in the lower left-hand comer of the screen that reads “Start.” A small balloon pops up when the cursor rests on the Start button, reading “Click here to begin.” Clicking brings up a menu that lists applications, recently opened documents and access to Help. The Start button anchors the so-called task bar, which can be moved around the periphery of the screen and displays the names and icons of programs that are currently running. This list of open programs solves a problem that many novices had with earlier versions: while Windows was originally designed to let people mn several programs at the same time, many never knew how to do it. Now, switching between tasks is both easy and obvious.

Something else that has improved is the Windows “desktop.” In the past, the face that Windows presented to the world was so clumsy and potentially confusing that Microsoft’s competitors made millions selling desktop programs that made it easier to use. Those companies may soon find that their market has shrunk. The Windows interface is now more like that of the Apple Macintosh, complete with a trash can that Microsoft calls the recycle bin. After more than a decade of criticism, Microsoft has now also produced a program allowing users to restore a deleted file without having to buy a special program.

Windows 95 also comes equipped to handle Internet connections and with software for Microsoft’s own on-line service, Microsoft Network, which will compete with services such as CompuServe and America Online. The builtin plug for its own service has prompted complaints of unfair play from its competitors. The Internet connection works well but is difficult to set up. (It took several hours and a call to Microsoft, which offered incorrect advice, and to an Internet service provider to get the connection working.) People buying the Microsoft Plus! add-on will get a program, called Internet Setup Wizard, that will make the process easier. And using the Windows 95 pre-release version, at least, the Microsoft Network was so clunky and slow that it was tempting to stop using it. Other on-line programs, though, including CompuServe, worked normally and with no loss in speed under the new system.

For years, Microsoft has

been the company that computer owners loved to hate. That was because of its size and because, for such a powerful company, it has seemed so incapable of doing right by the very product it became known for—the operating system, whether DOS or Windows. Now, with Windows 95, Microsoft may have put those days behind it. Says Lian Zerafa, a software engineer at Ottawa’s Cognos Inc., a business software developer, and a longtime critic of DOS and earlier versions of Windows: “It took Microsoft 10 years to get it right.” □