Microsoft crafts software aimed at simplifying PCs

July 18, 1994|By New York Times News Service

Next year, when you think of Chicago, you may not be thinking about Pizzeria Uno's deep-dish pizza, Mrs. O'Leary's destructive cow or Wrigley's bumbling Cubs.

By that point, the Microsoft Corp. may have succeeded in persuading you that Chicago, the code name for the coming new version of Windows, is something you can't live without.

Just last month, Microsoft kicked off a massive testing cycle aimed at hammering out the bugs, adding additional features here and there and making critical compatibility tweaks, all with the hope that it might deliver a finished product to customers before the end of the year.

The software company then plans to spend more money to persuade PC users that they need Chicago, or Windows 4.0, than it has spent on any product launching in its history.

Just how compatible and how fast Chicago is we won't know until much later in the testing cycle, and not truly until the program is released.

But based on an early glimpse of the work in progress, if Microsoft delivers on only half its promises for Chicago, there won't be a Windows user around who will not see it as a significant improvement.

It's not only that Chicago is that elegant. In many ways, Windows 3.1, its predecessor, is simply that clumsy. With Chicago, Microsoft has gotten rid of many of the more irksome things in Windows 3.1, like the File Manager and the eight-character limitation on file names. Instead of having to use the file manager for moving files among directories, Chicago users simply drag and drop file icons inside folder icons.

Such innovations will sound familiar to users of Apple Computer's Macintosh machines, though Microsoft insists Chicago is largely an original.

"No doubt it borrows a lot from the Mac but there's just as much innovation," said Brad Chase, general manager of personal operating systems for Microsoft.

The new program includes something called a Taskbar, which shows which applications are open and simplifies switching between them. A start button makes it easier to launch programs and includes a list of the 20 documents the user opened most recently.

Chicago will also be the first operating system to support the industry's plug-and-play technology, which enables the system to detect when the user has added a new component such as a multimedia upgrade card and adjust to it.

But while Chicago includes plenty of features aimed at simplifying the experience of using a PC, Microsoft says much of what's new in Chicago is aimed at making life easier for the corporate information-systems managers whose job it is to handle the care and feeding of their companies' computers. One example is Chicago's built-in networking, including connections to Netware, Novell Inc.'s industry-leading desktop networking system.

Other new workplace-minded features are aimed at simplifying systems management with such tricks as displaying the entire system configuration with the click of the mouse. Chicago also has built-in electronic mail and faxing capabilities, and a program for getting direct access to remote files. They've even thrown in a TCP/IP protocol stack -- the set of arcane and complex, but crucial, communications instructions for a direct connection to the Internet.

Perhaps most significantly, Chicago will take Windows users to the world of 32-bit processing, meaning the PC can process internal operations with 32 pieces of data at one time. True 32-bit operating systems can multitask, meaning it can conduct more than one operation at a time, such as recalculating a spreadsheet while reformatting a letter.

Although computers have had the potential for 32-bit processing since the introduction of Intel's 386 series of chips back in 1985, the current version of Windows still performs most operations in 16-bit mode.

Of course, moving to Chicago, isn't going to be simple -- or necessarily cheap. The Gartner Group, a market research company in Stamford, Conn., estimates in a recent report that the total cost of upgrading from Windows 3.1 to Chicago will be about $527 per user in an organization of 1,200 Windows users.

That compares with estimates of $267 to upgrade from Windows 3.0 to Windows 3.1.

Only a small part of the total upgrade cost will be the software itself. Upgrading to Chicago, the report said, will tax support organizations as they grapple with training users on Chicago's new interface, trouble-shooting configuration problems and working with new drivers.

To take advantage of Chicago's 32-bit architecture, users will also have to upgrade their spreadsheet, word processors and other applications software. Most major programs will be available in 32-bit versions right away (Microsoft says it will have 32-bit versions of all its Windows applications out within 90 days of shipping Chicago). But more specialized applications programs may take longer to arrive.

To help users migrate to Chicago, Microsoft is promising that the software will be fully compatible with current Windows and MS-DOS applications. Microsoft is also promising that Chicago will run acceptably on four megabytes of memory.

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