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Win 98: Minor upgrade, forced march

The upgrade to the operating system that's put Microsoft at the center of numerous courtrooms is here.

Today marks the arrival of Windows 98, the upgrade of an operating system that's put Microsoft at the center of a number of courtrooms, and the big question is whether it will become obsolete before its extended publicity campaign is over.

Windows 98 is the middle child of Microsoft's operating systems--a solid but not flashy See special report:
Windows dressing consumer upgrade that offers neither the groundbreaking interface overhaul of Windows 95 nor the stability of Windows NT, which will reach consumers in two to three years. It won't supplant Windows 3.1, 95, or NT in the corporate environment; even Microsoft is encouraging businesses to skip Windows 98.

Still, as the successor to the nearly ubiquitous Windows 95, the last of Microsoft's DOS-based products will become the de facto standard for consumer systems. Windows 98 is expected to ship 12.8 million copies in 1998 and 66 million in 2000, and thereafter will account for about 80 percent of all consumer desktops, according to market research firm International Data Corporation.

What's in an upgrade?
Web integration: Allows viewing of HTML files and Web pages from Windows Explorer, but only in Internet Explorer.

Help: New HTML interface for the help menu. Integrated access to Microsoft's Internet help site.

Hardware support: Natively supports USB (universal serial bus), DVD, and TV tuner add-in cards.

Speed: Faster start-up and shutdown, and faster application loading.

Other: FAT 32 allocates disk space more efficiently than Windows 95; Windows Update Wizard automatically schedules and executes online updates.

Cost: $209 for the full version, $109 for the upgrade.

A key factor in Windows 98's rapid growth of installation is lack of choice. Starting tonight, computer vendors are going to stop loading Windows 95 on consumer machines and only offer Windows 98.

Technologically, the upgrade brings manageability and some convenience to customers. An accomplishment, to be sure, just not a huge one.

"This is not going to be an event to remember [like] Windows 95 was," said Kevin Hause, PC analyst at International Data Corporation. "This an evolutionary step, a migration."

Many Windows 98 features, like Internet Explorer 4.0 and some bug patches, are already available via download from the Internet. The $109 upgrade also offers some unheralded features like native support for USB (universal serial bus, which allows for easier peripheral connections), DVD (digital versatile disc), and TV tuner add-in cards.

While handy, these features will not likely compel companies or consumers to rush to computer retailers to purchase either a new Windows 98-ready PC or the standalone version of the upgrade. Though users will move to Windows 98, the OS probably won't break any sales records.

"You're not going to see people lined up at midnight to buy this thing," Hause said. "If a $1,000 machine is capable of doing what you need it to do, and it takes advantage of Windows 98 features, why spend $2,000" for a higher-end machine, he asked.

For its part, Microsoft has thrown its support behind the NT product line. The company has already stated publicly that some corporations should probably skip Windows 98 and wait until Windows NT 5.0 is released in a year and a half. A consumer version of NT, reportedly dubbed Windows 2000, will be available in 2000 or 2001.

At the same time, because of some longer-term corporate contracts, some PC makers will still be shipping machines with Windows 95, Windows 3.1, and Windows NT Workstation for the next few years.

"One of our goals is to make sure we provide support for whatever platform," said Kim Akers, group product manager for Windows 98. "The reality of the marketplace is that you will find people in all different stages."

"The life of the PC maker gets more complicated with every release from Microsoft," said Dan Kusnetsky. In fact, market research firm Dataquest estimates that by the end of 1998, there will still be 118 million Windows 3.1 users.

Few corporations will find Windows 98 features compelling enough to go to the time and expense of upgrading right away. Additionally, its high-profile features like support for TV tuner cards, simplified help menus, and easier Internet access are aimed mostly at consumers.

"Microsoft is giving [PC makers] three different messages for the Windows 98 launch. To consumers, they're saying: you have to upgrade. To businesses still using Windows 3.1, they're saying: you have to move to a 32-bit OS, and Windows 98 is a good time to do it. To organizations on Windows 95, they're saying Windows NT is the future, and you should be moving in that direction now," Kusnetsky summarized.

"If they stop supporting any of those, they may alienate customers," he pointed out.