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Windows upgrades: Who wins?

The so-callled seamless upgrade has become a complicated situation for some PC owners.

At an extraordinary Manhattan rally in May, Bill Gates and Microsoft supporters warned of dire consequences if legal actions were to delay Windows 98. They eventually prevailed, and Redmond's PR machine revved into high gear for the software's release last month.

But the new operating system has been beset with upgrade problems for PC makers and home consumers ever since, leading some to wonder whether the hard-fought release has become something of a Pyrrhic victory for Microsoft.

"I find it disheartening that this is happening after Microsoft made a lot of noise about making it easier to upgrade from older systems," said analyst Bill Peterson of market researcher International Data Corporation. "They clearly didn't test it well enough. It was not a high priority."

Indeed, the so-called seamless upgrade that was supposed to be Windows 98 See special report:
Cracked Windows has been a disappointment for some PC owners, showing that the software may not have been worth the cost and suggesting that Microsoft's intentions were driven more by PC sales than true customer satisfaction.

In its first four days on the market, more than 500,000 copies of the new operating system were sold, equaling the launch of Windows 95, according to a research firm PC Data. Such reports have kept Wall Street bullish on Microsoft, regardless of its software's technical merits.

And business users seem to be warming to the upgrade, a shift from earlier predictions. Some analysts now say they expect many corporations to adopt the new system, mostly as a way to head off any potential Year 2000 problems and to get the latest hardware drivers in one fell swoop.

For its part, Microsoft says the reports of problems are overblown. "Anybody who purchases a new machine can expect to have a positive experience," said Kim Akers, group product manager for Windows 98. "The vast majority of consumer machines can be upgraded without any problems. That being said, there are some machines that do need updated device drivers to fully support Windows 98."

That's where the problems begin.

What's a BIOS?
The basic input-
output system is critical software that configures the computer during the start-up phase. The BIOS usually resides in a ROM chip on older systems, or a flash EPROM chip on newer systems.
According to the company, Windows 98 was supposed to be the Windows for the masses--the opposite end of the spectrum of the industrial-strength NT operating system. But Win 98 consumers sometimes face the same daunting, inscrutable problems as the corporate systems managers using NT. Although Windows 98 can work well for new PCs that are modified to tap into its features, it can be a very different story for those seeking to upgrade from previous Windows systems.

Upgrade problems are often incarnated in esoteric, user-unfriendly terms such as "BIOS," "driver," or "power management," pointing once again to the same problem that has bedeviled users since the first IBM PCs were adopted by home users back in the early 1980s: Computers are too complicated.

For example, the following user complaint on a newsgroup is commonplace: "Who can help me...Getting through to Microsoft is a pain...Every time I [restart the computer] it gives me the error 'msgsrv32' then it says 'close' or 'ignore.'"

There's another: "I get two error messages...Details are general protection error in module CM833OS8.DRV," exclaims the user, obviously caught in a fog of arcane error messages.

The driver
A driver is software that lets hardware devices "talk" to the operating system. This allows a printer, for example, to talk directly to Windows 98, allowing for various software controls, among other features.
These kinds of problems are particularly exasperating for novices or casual users--proportionately the largest number of Windows 98 consumers, as these less sophisticated individuals often snap up home PCs and then run out to buy upgrades, driven by the promise of a better computer.

For a number of home users, this promise may be honored more in the breach than in the observance. What was seen as a gratifying upgrade can become a nightmare of cryptic commands and installation dead-ends--though experienced, and often jaded, PC enthusiasts often take these snags in stride.

Mike Flannery, Gateway's head of product management, blames the upgrade glitches on the explosive growth of the PC industry and the myriad configurations and peripherals that computer companies had to test for compatibility with Windows 98.

"You couldn't predict the future," he said. "We're all dealing with a situation where some customers have taken their systems and upgraded in ways we didn't foresee."

Although many upgrades indeed go smoothly on new machines and improve the user's computing experience, new features are another catch for older PCs. Many computers can't support the new technologies found in the operating system--technologies such as DVD-ROM drives and TV tuner cards.

On power management
With this feature, a notebook PC consumes less power, allowing the system to run longer off a battery.
In retrospect, analysts say, it seems obvious that no consumer will ever be able to watch television on a 486 computer via WebTV for Windows 98 because of the hardware requirements.

"One should always view minimum system requirements as painfully bare," advised Dwight Davis, a Microsoft analyst for Summit Strategies, noting that many who upgraded to Windows 95 also had similar gotchas.

There is one bright spot for users: Independent software vendors report that users should experience few, if any, application-related problems with Windows 98. That's mostly because manufacturers have done little, if anything to update their applications to work with Windows 98 because it's so closely related to Windows 95.

Some in the industry wonder whether the PC industry sufficiently educated consumers about which systems are really Windows 98-compatible and if computer vendors, along with users, have been caught off guard. All the major vendors are posting fixes, workarounds, and warnings; some, like Dell Computer, are saying in no uncertain terms that upgrades are not recommended for even newer systems.

"That's probably the education that's not taken place...The industry as a whole is doing better, but it's only 12, 13 years old," Gateway's Flannery said.

Others are harsher in laying the blame at Redmond's door. "The timing [of these problems] is what concerns me. Why is this coming up now? Why weren't they found before they release? They certainly had enough time," IDC analyst Dan Kusnetsky said.

"If a person has a machine that was originally set up for either Windows 95 or 3.1, they probably don't have the memory or storage to upgrade to Windows 98, which begs the question: Are you going to get something in this upgrade that makes it worth wiping out your hard drive? A lot of consumers would find that problematic."

In the end, Gates may be haunted by his own words from a nationally broadcast Senate hearing earlier this year: "At the end of the day," he declared, "all we care about is doing great software."

NEWS.COM's Mike Ricciuti contributed to this report.