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Will developers skip Windows 98?

Many independent software firms aren't anxious to offer upgrades, a sharp contrast to the hype and developer push that accompanied Windows 95.

As the June launch date of Windows 98 approaches, many independent software companies do not appear anxious to offer upgrades, a sharp contrast to the marketing hype and developer push that accompanied the release of Windows 95.

In a telling development, analysts say, Microsoft has not launched a marketing campaign for Windows 98 like the one that surrounded the launch of Windows 95. That absence has led many to believe that the software giant has thrown its support behind Windows NT as its platform of the future, making Windows 98 a lame-duck operating system.

Microsoft's position is that most Windows 95 software will be compatible with the Windows 98 platform and that the majority of changes are on the hardware side, a company spokesperson said. For instance, Windows 98 will include support for DVD technology and a television tuner for viewing TV on a PC.

But today at the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference in Orlando, Florida, chairman Bill Gates confirmed that Windows 98 will be the last of the DOS-based Microsoft operating systems. In its stead, a consumer version of Windows NT, now Microsoft's corporate system, will be available in 2000 or 2001, according to Gates.

"It's just hard to find any evidence that Microsoft believes that this is going to be a hot product," said Jeffrey Tartar, publisher of Softletter, a software industry newsletter. "Just compare what Microsoft was doing in anticipation of Windows 95. [By now] analysts and the press would have seen early third-party [software] products--none of that is happening with Windows 98."

Microsoft software developers are indeed low-key about their product updates for Windows 98. Lotus, Corel, Intuit, and Borland all said that while their new products will be compatible with Windows 98, they are not planning specific updates to accommodate the upgraded operating system.

"To be honest, we haven't received a lot of questions about Windows 98 at this point specifically," a Borland spokesman said. "Windows 95 was different because it was a brand new OS [operating system] in a lot of ways. We were pretty much in sync with the development cycle for Windows 95. We're not on that same scale as far as an upgrade goes."

Developers and analysts say that with few exceptions, Windows 98 code is nearly identical to Windows 95 code, making separate software applications for each platform unnecessary. "As far as I'm able to tell from running it for a while, Windows 98 uses the same interfaces for most things that Windows 95 did," said Dan Kusnetzky, an analyst at market research firm IDC. "In fact, there's very little difference. I've run all the popular office suite software and haven't seen any major changes."

Bob Pettit, director of product management for Symantec, said the Norton utility software vendor will offer update patches for Windows 98, but is unsure whether its release or retail updates will coincide with the launch. "The changes between Windows 3.x to Windows 95 were far more dramatic than the changes we have to make here," Pettit noted. "It's definitely less of a dramatic change."

Regardless of code or feature changes, if developers thought that Windows 98 was going to be a blockbuster product, they would release retail updates, Tartar believes. "Because of the absence of features, it's unlikely that there will be a huge spike in retail sales of Windows 98," he said. "If the software vendors thought there was going to be a huge retail spike, they'd get on the bandwagon."