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Is Windows 95 just a patchwork upgrade and not the revolution that Bill Gates promised?

By David Cassel

A press bus leaving Microsoft's compound after the Windows 95 launch gala last August passed another Seattle bus bearing this message: C:ONGRTLNS.W95. That greeting was Apple's doing--they had hired demonstators to wear similar placards outside the press hotel. Apple, of course, wanted to remind the world that despite the publicity blitz to the contrary, Microsoft's overhauled system software still isn't as easy to use as the Macintosh.

Apple wasn't the only party sniping from the sidelines: During the official "Windows 95 Launch Event"--the one-day, $200 million extravaganza on the Microsoft spread in Redmond, Wash.--America Online flew a scale-model blimp over the spread. Clearly, they wanted to remind attendees that despite Microsoft Network, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates's new online juggernaut, AOL hasn't yet gone the way of the Hindenberg.

"We were welcoming Windows 95 to the markets," says AOL spokeswoman Pam McGraw, coyly. Of course, "welcome" is probably too strong a word. Microsoft knows it is facing, shall we say, a hostile audience. Apart from the critics at Apple and AOL, Microsoft has won itself an audience of dedicated assailants, from Ralph Nader and other trust-busters who warn that Microsoft is an out-of-control monopoly, to the grass-roots Gates haters who castigate the company and burn the man in effigy on the Internet.

Gates, in his attempt to make Windows 95 work with pre-existing software, has delivered a clunky product with too much performance-sapping source code.

None of which has been enough to dampen Microsoft's ecstatic send-off of Windows 95. Press reports have it that Microsoft spent $1 billion dollars promoting its new product, which, from the sound of the company's all-out promotional campaign is the digital equivalent of the Second Coming.

Or else "The End of the World as We Know It." But R.E.M., bless their non-negotiable hearts, refused to sell the rights to that song to Microsoft. (But you've got to give Microsoft's promotions brain trust credit for having a sense of irony.) Instead, Microsoft bought the Rolling Stones' "Start Me Up," for an undisclosed amount (in the millions-of dollars-range, but, according to an MS flack, less than the $12 million figure bandied about in the press). You've probably seen the resulting commericals, which showcase the operating system's new application-launching "Start" button. During a one-minute TV ad, the word "start" is sung by the superannuated Mick Jagger nine times, and in case you still don't get it, the word appears on the screen 20 times.

But the macro-hype was just getting started. Microsoft also gave 3,000 "Special Edition" copies of Windows 95 to the press at the launch extravaganza, along with $200,000 worth of free CD players from Kodak. Microsoft's PR firm announced that their product had generated 3 million words in the press and some 3,000 headlines--before a single copy of the operating system software had been sold.

But behind every silver lining are a few clouds. After the first week of sales in August, Barry Cooper of the Orlando Sentinel reported that Microsoft help lines had been flooded with 20,000 callers, and San Jose-based Dataquest reported that returns of the product were higher than expected. Yet Microsoft announced in mid-October that their company surveys showed 90 percent of the people who purchased Windows 95 were satisifed. And revenues for this quarter were $2 billion--up 62 percent from the year before. PC Data even reported that 25% of all computer software sales in September were related to Windows 95.

How are the technical experts responding to Microsoft's revamped operating system? Christopher McCracken, an independent Chicago-area computer consultant, summed up the general feeling this way: "It doesn't impress me. Bill Gates's strategy was all wrong. He left alot of 16-bit code in there to make it backwards compatible." Translation: Gates, in his attempt to make Windows 95 work with pre-existing software, has delivered a clunky product with too much performance-sapping source code.

"I think this was the wrong choice," continues McCracken. "What they released was an upgrade," not a full-fledged overhaul. A Macintosh enthusiast, he adds that "Apple System 8 is gonna blow Windows out of the water." Apple has promised all new code in their planned "Copland" System 8, which is scheduled for release near the end of 1996.

Five Web browsers-- including NetCruiser, Netscape Navigator, and Mosaic in a Box--require tweaking if you plan to use them on a PC running Windows 95.

The 32-bit code in Windows 95 does give the system a lot more flexibility and power--allowing you work on one application while another runs in the background. But the backwards-compatibility of Windows 95 required the new operating system to retain enough old code to emulate a 16-bit machine. As one Bay Area computer hardware professional put it, "Some of us feel that Windows 95 is a stopgap to hold ground until the Windows OS structure can be migrated to Windows NT altogether. Microsoft clearly doesn't want to go all the way now because that would destroy NT as a premium product."

Windows NT is Microsoft's sophisticated operating system for computer networks. Indeed, a good chunk of the company's profits come not from personal computers but from corporate clients running high-speed computer networks. Windows NT features advanced capabilities and sophisticated communications protocols--and even more hardware requirements than Windows 95. Because most PCs today couldn't run Windows NT, Windows 95 may be a place-holder--a middleground until the Windows operating system for personal computers and Microsoft Network can be migrated into one common platform. The 16-bit code of Windows 95 may slow its performance, but it serves as a transition to an all-32-bit world.

Of course, top-heavy coding isn't the only problem with Windows 95. Some popular programs have been known to crash under Windows 95, and initial "factory" settings on network cards can cause annoying momentary pauses until adjusted. Five Web browsers-- including NetCruiser, Netscape Navigator, and Mosaic in a Box--require tweaking if you plan to use them on a PC running Windows 95. And, presumably, there are other bugs that are software-specific: Norton Utilities won't run without the $50 Windows 95 upgrade; and, peculiarly, Excel for Windows 95 returns the value .64 in any spreadsheet cell in which the number 1.40737488355328 is entered.

Another problem with Windows 95 is installing it. Microsoft took pains at the Windows 95 Launch Event to show an installer whose only problem was lack of coffee. However, although many users have reported problem-free installation, others seem to be having trouble. The program will sometimes "hang" during installation. Rebooting the computer may "recover" the installation procedure, but other times, it's back to square one. Disabling memory management and anti-virus programs before installation is probably a good idea--as is backing up the original CONFIG.SYS file.

The installation program also installs its own drivers to interact with the hardware peripherals, sometimes in place of correctly installed ones. "I just flat out hate all that it does to your system without asking for permission," says one user I know, who became so frustrated he removed Windows 95 from his system. ComputerWorld reported that BASF Corporation has delayed $20 million dollars worth of Windows 95 upgrades because there currently isn't a Windows 95 driver compatible with the Netware Directory Services connection to Novell's Netware network.

But the biggest "glitches" that have surfaced thus far in Windows 95 are the hardware requirements. As even "Doonesbury" noted, Microsoft recommends at least 8 megabytes of RAM and 35 megabytes on the hard drive; meanwhile, the Microsoft Network, Gates's nascent online franchise, and the Microsoft Exchange, its e-mail management component, require an additional 20 megabytes on the hard disk. Worse, Windows 95 packaging assures users that the product runs on a 386DX or higher; the truth, however, is that while it will run on a 386DX PC, it will be extremely slow.

The most annoying anomaly in the Windows 95 OS? By entering a specific series of keystrokes, you unleash a self-promotional programmers' "easter egg," a hidden surprise. That lagniappe (unwelcome to anyone who is annoyed by Microsoft's purported arrogance) is an 11-minute, continuous loop of animation and music. Over the company's familiar blue sky-with-clouds background, the Microsoft logo fades in and out. The words, "The people behind the magic" materialize onscreen, and then names begin to fade in. Hundreds of names, from dozens of departments--Beta Support, Core Testing, etc. Even Bill Gates, himself, is listed, under "Mission Control."

The sequence ends like this: "Special thanks to / YOU our customer / Thanks for using Windows 95." And then the program repeats.

This lavish production number prompted one Silicon Valley programmer to quip, "So THAT'S why Windows 95 required a CD-ROM to install."

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