Tech Industry

Win 98 plays second fiddle

Microsoft soon will release the final beta version of Windows 98, but some question the company's commitment to the delayed OS upgrade.

LAS VEGAS--Microsoft (MSFT) soon will release the third and final beta version of Windows 98, but questions about the company's commitment to the oft-delayed operating system upgrade remain.

Beta 3 is due before Christmas, but Microsoft has done little to promote the upcoming release, which is due in the second quarter of 1998. In arguably his largest media spotlight of the year, the Comdex kickoff keynote, company CEO Bill Gates steered clear of Windows 98. Company officials have likewise been downplaying 98's impact for months. (See related story)

Windows 98 will likely be the last DOS-based OS from Microsoft before it shifts its product line to NT-based systems. Company officials have been evangelizing NT 5.0, which won't ship until at least the second half of 1998, as the business desktop of the future while positioning Windows 98 as an upgrade for home users.

One corporate manager who might be stuck with Windows 95 is wary of upgrading to 98.

"Our desired state is to go directly to NT 5.0," said Joel Graves, associate director of client solutions for the biopharmaceutical and corporate division of Chiron, where the approximately 2,500 desktops are split between 3.x and 95 systems. "But we have issues with 16-bit legacy applications that could impact that move. More than likely, we'll implement 95 across the board and won't be an early adopter of 98."

One of the new features of Windows 98 is the broadcast architecture, which lets users watch television shows on the PC. The TV viewer will come with an HTML-based program guide with space for ad banners at the bottom of the screen. Windows 98 also will use a portion of the television signal called the vertical blanking interval (VBI) to receive additional data. If TV programmers want to, they can broadcast supplemental information with their shows and Windows 98 will display it in a separate frame. So far, no broadcasters have committed to doing so, preferring to see how Windows 98 shapes up.

"We'll hopefully get some endorsements later this year," said Microsoft product marketing manager Phil Holden.

"The TV in your system is useful for people at home and for heavy investors who need more than just a stock ticker," said Tim Fitz-Gerald of the Daytona Computer Center, a retail store in South Daytona, Florida. "You can work during commercials, or just listen to the audio in the background then Alt-Tab to the viewer when there's something important."

Having the TV tuner and other applications open may require heavy resources, however. Microsoft will recommend 32MB of memory for Win 98--more if the user is working with multiple applications.

"If you only use one or two applications at a time, I don't think you'll need additional memory," said Holden.

The VBI also can be used for non-TV push channels. Windows 98 will include a "WaveTop" channel, a service provided by WavePhore that will broadcast down entire Web sites, up to 150MB per day of data, if the user subscribes. That's a lot of space on the hard drive, Holden said, but he pointed out that Windows 98 will support FAT 32 (file allocation table) partitions for hard drives over 2GB, a space-saving feature that previously was available only on original equipment manufacturer (OEM) versions of Windows 95.

Holden also offered an explanation as to why Gates passed over Windows 98 in favor of NT 5.0, to which he devoted approximately half an hour for a demonstration.

"Windows 98 isn't quite ready yet, and we wouldn't want to stall the Christmas purchases of Windows 95 systems," he said.

When asked if heavy marketing of NT 5.0 is stalling the adoption of NT 4.0, Holden said it was necessary to talk about NT 5.0 in this venue: "The message for NT is business, business, business--and that's the main audience [of Comdex]."

There are also legal questions hanging over the Win 98 project. The Department of Justice lawsuit that charges Microsoft with violation of a 1995 antitrust agreement does not specifically cover Windows 98. But if a federal judge rules that Microsoft's inclusion of its Internet Explorer browser with Windows 95 is illegal, there could be repercussions for Windows 98, which Microsoft officials have said will be even more tightly integrated with the browser.