Don't blame apps for Win 98 flaws

If you run into Windows 98 problems, it's not the fault of software application providers.

Mike Ricciuti Staff writer, CNET News
Mike Ricciuti joined CNET in 1996. He is now CNET News' Boston-based executive editor and east coast bureau chief, serving as department editor for business technology and software covered by CNET News, Reviews, and Download.com. E-mail Mike.
Mike Ricciuti
5 min read
If you run into Windows 98 problems, talk to your hardware maker and Microsoft first, not the software application companies.

That's because few independent software See special report:
Cracked Windows developers needed to modify their applications to work with the new operating system. So it's unlikely that programs like Netscape Navigator or Lotus Notes are the culprits when Windows 98 crashes.

As with any release from Microsoft, Windows 98 arrived with a flurry of press statements from independent software makers boasting compatibility with a host of new features in the operating system.

Yet most of the system's features are related to hardware support. The truly new technology in Windows 98--universal serial bus, Accelerated Graphics Port, and DVD support--is integrated at the system level and really doesn't affect application software, except for gaming programs tightly linked to system services and specifically designed multimedia applications.

These system-level enhancements typically don't require application updates. For instance, Windows 98's new Win32 Driver Model makes building hardware drivers easier for independent software developers, but Windows 95 drivers also work just fine. And though the new FAT32 file system that can accelerate application performance, most existing applications are already compatible.

Take a close look at the "launch partners" enlisted by Microsoft to showcase Windows 98: Imaging software makers, game developers, and multimedia software companies top the list. Those companies are offering software rewritten to take advantage of new Windows 98 features.

But for business software developers--Lotus Development, SAP, Novell, and others--Windows 98's arrival is almost a nonevent.

"[Windows 98] is not that big of a deal," said one software company executive, who requested anonymity. "Not a lot needed to be done."

Most applications already have been running on a functional equivalent of Windows 98 for months without problems. The combination of Microsoft's latest update to Windows 95, plus the company's Internet Explorer 4.01, essentially equals Windows 98.

Most independent developers see Windows NT 5.0's release as the next important milestone. Many business users skipped Windows 95 and 98 altogether, opting instead to make the leap to NT 5.0 once it debuts next year.

For the most part, software makers pledge that their products will work with Windows 98, but they have done little or nothing to their lines--other than to certify compatibility to support new features. That's mainly because Windows 98 has the same underlying application programming interfaces as Windows 95.

Some software makers, such as Lotus, have not completed Windows 98 certification. A company spokesman said Lotus fully supports customers running its Notes software on Windows 98, but that the software is not yet certified as compatible. Testing is in progress, according to the company.

In the PC applications world, companies say they plan to take advantage of enhancements in Windows 98, but they are not breaking any speed records to get there.

"We are looking at that and have plans to optimize the product for Windows 98 with the next release," said Steve Ruddock, spokesman for FileMaker, in Santa Clara, California. "It was sort of a Catch-22 for us. Filemaker 4.0 shipped at the end of last year, and Windows 98 was not out yet, so we couldn't do anything then."

Ruddock said the company is still figuring out how Filemaker should capitalize on Windows 98 features. The next version of the database program will be released in 1999. High on the priority list are non-Windows 98 items like optimizing the product to fit better with corporate standards such as SQL and ODBC.

Netscape said its existing Communicator Web software runs just fine under Windows 98 and may even communicate a bit faster, thanks to its new TCP/IP stack. But the software needed no internal changes.

Utility software makers have needed to make the most changes, to enable their products to work with FAT32 and other new features. Symantec's remote products division, which makes PCAnywhere, is building new features into the company's product lines.

Christopher Calisi, vice president of the division, said the main item in Windows 98 his office wants to exploit is the USB (universal serial bus) technology.

"Since we make many file transfers with the products, synchronization is important," Calisi said. "We are looking to make it easier for users to plug into a serial port and know right away what is on either end of that cable. We don't want the user to have to do anything."

One product that already takes advantage of the browser-like feel of Windows 98 is Act 4.0. It's a contact manager that lets users click on an email address from within an application and launch an email to the person.

Beyond these enhancements, however, Calisi said no immediate plans are in the works. For the most part, product line upgrades will be intended to achieve better overall user functions, rather than tailored to fit Windows 98.

Software development toolmakers, like utility software companies, did have to rework some aspects of their products in preparation for Windows 98.

Inprise, the toolmaker formerly named Borland International, revamped its Delphi 4 tool so that it can create Windows 98 user interfaces, said Brett Smith, a company representative. The company's goal is to eventually make all of its development tools Windows 98 compatible, Smith said.

But Oracle has yet to do any Windows 98 certification for its tools. The company has just started estimating how much work needs to be done in order to support the new OS. "Customers have not asked for immediate support for Windows 98. There's no huge demand," said an Oracle representative.

One way to measure Windows 98's strategic importance is to ask how many company seminars are targeted at developers for the new operating system. The answer: scant few. Microsoft has mostly soft-pedaled Windows 98 to corporate developers. At the company's recent TechEd conference, an annual convention dedicated to conveying Microsoft-sanctioned technical advice to developers, the company barely mentioned Windows 98. Most operating system-specific sessions focused on Windows NT 5.0.

Only a handful of the hundreds of sessions held during TechEd addressed Windows 98, and those were targeted toward corporate IS managers migrating PCs to the new operating system.

The sessions that did mention Windows 98 focused on management and administration, not corporate development. In fact, when Microsoft rolled out its Visual Studio 6.0 development tool bundle last month, no mention of Windows 98 was made at all.