MICROSOFT Corp. recently announced that Windows 98, the successor to its Windows 95 operating system, would be delayed. The new target date is the second quarter of 1998, which in the computer world tends to mean "one minute before the first of July, assuming we don't blow it."
An early version of Windows 98 is already being tested by a select cadre of fearless users (not me), and a fairly clear view of the final version is taking shape. Last-minute surprises are always possible, but for now the upgrade looks like an extremely modest improvement that may give you a reason to wait before buying a new machine.
In a sense, Windows 98 has already been arriving incrementally. Initially, the system was referred to by the code name Memphis and touted largely for its ties to a Web browser that would offer an entirely new user interface. But that has changed, and tomorrow evening, fulfilling the company's promise of a third-quarter release, the browser and interface are scheduled to be released separately as Internet Explorer 4.0. It will be available free on the Web and, soon, on new computer systems; it is meant to work just fine with Windows 95.
Many features and bug fixes that will be built into Windows 98 have already appeared in the versions of Windows 95 that have been supplied with new machines since late last year. Users of earlier versions can download many, but not all, of these repairs and additions from Microsoft's Web site, but that process can take hours over standard phone lines. At least Windows 98 will put them all in one place, be it a new machine or an upgrade disk.
Given this history, Microsoft has had great difficulty portraying the release as particularly compelling. Phil Holden, a Windows product manager, called it "an incremental upgrade," but not a "major architectural change." He added that the company had focused on "making the system generally more reliable," with tweaks intended to minimize delays while programs load or the system shuts down.
Other major enhancements in Windows 98 involve system-level software for particular kinds of hardware. The new edition will have special drivers for DVD-ROM players, television tuners, Universal Serial Bus (USB) ports and the high-speed ports known as Firewire or IEEE 1394. But although this new software should eventually help standardize and speed the adoption of such hardware, reports of incompatibilities with things like current DVD-ROM software are already beginning to surface. One promised feature is the ability to use more than one monitor at once, something Macintosh users have had for years.
Like some fairy-tale prince, Windows 98 will awaken slumbering features in some machines. Hardware conforming to a standard known as Advanced Configuration and Power Interface (ACPI) is already being built, but current versions of Windows are blind to it. Vendors are using their own software to tap into some of its features, including improved power management, better recognition of peripherals and the ability to have the machine turn on and off instantly without being rebooted. But a computer you buy today with these features may not reach its full potential without the kiss of a Windows 98 upgrade.
If you have such a machine, you might reasonably think that Windows 98 should be provided to you free, but computer vendors are still trying to figure out how to cope with such demands. In the past, users have often been offered free upgrades for software purchased within the last 30 or 60 or 90 days, but if Microsoft meets its current release plans, a machine with advanced features could be nine months old by the time Windows 98 appears, and customers' pleas for free upgrades may fall on deaf ears.
Upgrade prices have not yet been set, but if you buy an advanced machine in the near future, bet on paying extra for the software needed to bring some of its features to life.
Pub Date: 9/29/97