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Microsoft plots Windows upgrades

Microsoft officials say the company will provide an easy upgrade path from Windows 3.x to the upcoming Windows NT 5.0.

    Microsoft (MSFT) officials said they will provide an easy upgrade path from Windows 3.x to the upcoming Windows NT 5.0.

    Giving Windows 3.x users, who make up as much as 60 percent of corporate desktops, an easy way to move to NT 5.0 is critical for Microsoft's stated goal of making NT the business favorite. NT 5.0 has no official ship date, although company officials in the past have put a target on the second half of 1998.

    The current version of NT, Windows NT 4.0, maintains the program groups and the "majority of standard productivity applications" when installed over Windows 3.x. NT 5.0 should do the same, according to Windows product manager Stacey Breyfogle.

    But because the inner workings of Windows 3.x (which is 16-bit) and 95, 98, and NT (which are 32-bit) are so different, Microsoft warns that corporations shouldn't simply assume that 16-bit applications will work after the upgrade.

    "We absolutely recommend that corporations test their applications before upgrading, especially internal applications," Breyfogle said. 16-bit applications which take advantage of hardware resources, such as certain games and other multimedia applications, will not work on NT, she said.

    Application compatibility isn't the only worry, according to one analyst.

    "System resources are a big issue going from [the 16-bit] 3.1 to 32-bit," said Dwight Davis, editorial director of industry newsletter Windows Watcher. "NT is a more demanding OS than its Win95 counterpart, and the next generation will most likely continue in that direction. Even if you want to go to NT, do you want to have 32MB of memory on everyone's desktop?"

    Microsoft has also recently promised a special version of Windows 98 to help 3.x users trade up to that platform. The special version will ship about three months after the regular product ships, which will be in the first quarter of 1998.

    Davis feels the delay reflects a hole in Microsoft's strategy that it's only now scrambling to fill. The company has so far downplayed Windows 98 as an upgrade to Windows 95 most relevant to the home and multimedia consumer.

    Win 98 will enter its third beta cycle after the launch of Internet Explorer 4.0, which will be integrated into the Win 98 desktop. In its current beta iteration, it requires a minimum of 16MB of RAM, a 486 PC, and at least 80 to 90MB of free hard drive space. Installing the full IE 4 and TV viewer configurations could boost hard drive requirements by 100MB, Breyfogle said, but stressed that these figures could change as the beta cycle continues.

    Davis sounded a cautionary note about memory requirements, noting that 8MB is the "minimum requirement" for Windows 95. "Not too many people are happy to run Win95 on 8MB. 16 is more like it. So it's possible that 98 will need 24 if they're saying 16 is the likely minimum."

    Meanwhile, Microsoft's Breyfogle promised that an early beta version of NT 5.0 will be distributed at the company's Professional Developer Conference, which starts September 22 in San Diego.