Syncronys stabs at Win 98

The software maker returns with UpgradeAID 98, allowing PCs to run both Windows 95 and Windows 98, but observers say "caveat emptor."

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
4 min read
Struggling software maker Syncronys Softcorp is back with UpgradeAID 98, a program that allows users to run both Windows 95 and Windows 98 on their PCs, but observers say "caveat emptor."

UpgradeAID 98, which costs $19.95, lets users revert back to Windows 95 if problems arise with Windows 98. It doesn't uninstall Microsoft's latest operating system; instead, Windows 98 goes into hibernation in favor of Windows 95 until users want to bring it back.

In short, Window 95 remains available as a safety valve, the company claims, giving users the option to return to a more stable environment if problems occur in Windows 98.

Analysts are skeptical because the differences between the two operating systems are not huge and therefore may not justify a third-party helper program. At the same time, the product comes from a company that was embroiled in a major software controversy in 1995.

Syncronys is mostly known for SoftRAM for Windows 95, a memory compression application. One of the top-selling software titles in the fall of 1995, SoftRAM 95 also didn't work, according to, among other sources, SoftRAM itself. By October of that year, Syncronys was facing consumer class-action lawsuits, an Federal Trade Commission investigation, and legal threats from Microsoft.

Syncronys ended up recalling the product, offering customers full refund, signing a consent decree with the FTC, and paying close to $1 million in consumer legal fees. Its stock plunged from $32 to close to $1. Still, the company subsequently found overseas venture funding to continue in business.

Despite positive reviews for UpgradeAID 98, at least some of those who purchased the flawed software take a more skeptical outlook for the future of the company. "There are some things you never forget," wrote one NEWS.COM reader.

"Syncronys?the company that was brought to task for that Windows 'RAM compressor' that didn't do anything?" recollected a newsgroup poster. "The program ended up taking more RAM than giving. But [at least] it was cheap!"

CEO Rainer Poertner admits that SoftRAM had "serious technical problems" but said that the company' s quality problems are past events.

"It's been a really long time. In the meantime the company has released 12 new products," he said, explaining that "We released a product in a rush with the release of Windows 95."

While Poertner is still CEO, most of the company's engineering and quality teams have been replaced. Most engineering and quality testing is in fact outsourced, he said, which is somewhat common in the industry. Remaining employees mostly work in product marketing.

Business has not been great--revenues came to $8 million last year--but the company continues to cut costs and try to build sales.

Even ignoring the company's track record, analysts view its latest offering, UpgradeAID 98, with a critical eye. The application purports to allow users to run Windows 98 and Windows 95 simultaneously without partitioning the hard drive, based on a proprietary technology called SFS, or Smart Files System.

Users are supposed to install UpgradeAID 98 prior to Windows 98, said Poertner. If a problem occurs while running the application with Windows 98, the user simply shuts down the computer and reboots it to run Windows 95, which becomes the operating system until the next reboot. Only one version of a user's applications exist on a hard drive; UpgradeAID essentially allows the applications to run on either OS. The product took about eight to ten months to develop.

"People want to upgrade but are nervous, because of incompatibility with drivers and modems," said Brandi Flores, product manager for Syncronys. "This allows you to stick your toe in the water."

Because some upgrades may be problematic due to inadequate systems or incompatible peripherals, skittish users will be able to hold on to Windows 95 files, even after upgrading. But Dataquest analyst Chris LeTocq noted that Windows 98, feature-wise, is already the equivalent of Windows 95 and Internet Explorer 4.0. Additionally, Windows 98 already allows users to uninstall and revert back to Windows 95, he said.

"Windows 98 is really nothing but Windows 95.1 anyway, LeTocq said. "It's not like it's a totally separate operating system." In fact, running both environments simultaneously may be a strain for many hard drives, according to LeTocq.

"We can't get around taking up space on your hard drive," Flores allowed, adding that "We do offer a partition less solution that is completely safe. You're never going to be in a situation where your system is not bootable. We added a lot of safety procedures."

"I classify this as tough to see a benefit, but maybe it's there," LeTocq concluded.

A former customer was less generous: "Don't be fooled by this garbage," vented one reader.