Depending on which side of the debate you favor, Microsoft Windows is either the best thing to happen to DOS computers since the first PC was introduced or the biggest case of hysterical consumerism since tulip bulb mania hit 17th-century Holland. The truth lies somewhere in between, of course.
Windows has been around for many years, but it did not capture the imaginations of users until version 3.0 arrived nearly two years ago.
Since then, Microsoft Corp. has sold more than 10 million copies of Windows 3.0, and it expects to match that figure this year with the newest upgrade, Windows 3.1.
Windows 3.1 went on sale earlier this month at a suggested list price of $149. Owners of earlier Windows versions can buy it for $49.
It is unclear how many of the millions of Windows buyers are actually Windows users.
Sales of Windows-based word processors, spreadsheets and other application programs lag far behind sales of Windows itself, according to software industry figures.
What counts, in the end, is that Windows elicits a perception of momentum that is compelling to software developers as well as to users.
Windows resides between the user and the underlying DOS operating system, transforming DOS from a character-based system of typed line commands to a more elegant system of point-and-click windows, symbols, buttons and pull-down menus.
Windows has several advantages over DOS, including better use of the computer's memory chips and the ability to keep several different programs working on the screen, each in its own window, at the same time.
This is called multitasking, and plain DOS cannot do it. Windows also makes it easier to move information from one program to another.
Further, Windows helps the user indirectly by enforcing a kind of uniformity on all Windows-based programs. The command systems are basically the same from one application to the next, which makes programs a little easier to learn.
The new version, Windows 3.1, is even better.
Windows 3.1 is faster, more reliable, easier to use and more attractive than 3.0.
Microsoft officials report that the Windows 3.1 upgrade has been "beta tested" by nearly 14,000 users, an astonishingly high number by industry standards.
The testers spent months examining features and checking compatibility with Windows 3.0 and Windows applications. As a result, Windows 3.1 comes to market with an implied promise of fewer surprises, or bugs, than its predecessor.
The adventurous souls who leaped aboard the Windows 3.0 bandwagon had a bumpy ride. One of the most annoying bumps was the so-called unrecoverable application error, or "UAE."
The dreaded UAE results from a conflict between an application, like a word processor or spreadsheet, and Windows itself.
The conflicts cause the computer to seize up, and the only way to escape and get back to work is to restart, typically by hitting the CTRL, ALT and DEL keys simultaneously. Time is wasted, and any work done up to that point is lost unless it has been saved to disk.
Version 3.1 is now able to determine whether the conflicts are indeed unrecoverable; most of them, it turns out, are not. The user can get out of sticky situations without rebooting.
Despite the testing, there are still a few reported conflicts between Windows 3.1 and popular programs.
Annoyingly, programs that worked with Windows 3.0 may not work as well with 3.1, requiring users to buy updated versions of their applications. The safest route is to call the makers of your favorite applications before installing Windows 3.1.
One of the most visible improvements in version 3.1 is True Type, a new type font technology.
True Type essentially gives Windows 3.1 users the same high-quality typography that had been available only at extra cost by using Adobe Type Manager and Adobe type fonts. Windows 3.1 will work with Adobe Type Manager and Adobe fonts, but Microsoft argues that True Type fonts are superior.
Both technologies provide so-called scalable type, which can be made almost any size, not just the usual fixed point sizes of conventional fonts.
Also, both reduce the jagged effects seen on screen and on paper when text is enlarged.
Another happy improvement in version 3.1 is the new File Manager, the part of Windows that controls how files and applications are manipulated.
The new File Manager makes it much easier to change disk drives, move files, view directories and otherwise control data.
To copy a file to another disk, for example, one simply points to the symbol representing the file, drags it to the symbol for the target disk, and drops it. Printing the file works the same way.
To take the best advantage of Windows 3.1, Microsoft recommends the following computer configuration: at least a 386SX microprocessor; at least 2 megabytes of extended system memory beyond the basic 640 kilobytes; a high-density diskette drive; at least 10 megabytes of open hard disk space; color VGA graphics adapter and monitor; a mouse, and DOS 5.0.