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<Why you donít need Windows 98>

By Daniel Will-Harris 

5-25-98 - Normally computers are not big news. We use them every day and theyíre an integral part of our lives, and yet, unless some hacker cracks a code, or people are worried about the Year 2000 bug sucking all the money out of their bank accounts, we donít see them on TV news.

But lately, the political babble about Microsoft and the Department of Justice has, perhaps, overshadowed the real question people need to ask themselves about Windows 98--ďDo I really need to buy it?Ē

The answer, in my opinion, is ďno.Ē And the reason is simple: ďAt the moment, thereís just no compelling reason, and there are compelling reasons to avoid it.Ē

>Reasons to avoid it

Letís start with the reasons to avoid it. First, while not the major operating system upgrade that Windows 3.1 was, it still is an operating system upgrade that replaces many vital system files. Chances are about 100% that the mission-critical software you rely on now was not developed with these new changes, however minor, in mind. That means that despite all the testing Microsoft has done, there are sure to be incompatibilities with software, printer drivers, scanner drivers and other things you rely on. Since publishing tends to work computers to the max, the chances are even greater that youíll run into unexpected problems because of these changes. I donít know about you, but when I get my system running right, I donít want to mess with it unless Iím sure itís going to continue to run right. There are no such assurances with Windows 98.

>Reasons you donít need it

The change from Windows 3.1 and Windows 95 was huge--you were going from a 16-bit system to a 32-bit system. You got long filenames and a much more stable system. To get the most out of it you needed to upgrade your applications software to new versions, but when you did, you got new features, new power, and it was worth the trouble.

Windows 98 is a much more minor upgrade--itís more like a bunch of utilities and ďbug fixesĒ than it is like a new operating system.

Its biggest claim to fame is that you see everything through the browser, the Internet Explorer. Big deal. Remember, Microsoft is busy giving away the Internet Explorer (complete with the very same ďtake over your desktop if you want itĒ interface that Windows 98 offers). If you want that new interface, download it for free from the Microsoft site. I have heard horror stories about installing IE with the ďActive Desktop,Ē so my copy of IE was installed without this feature, but if you want the Win98 interface, this is basically all you need to do to get it for free.

Win98 comes with Outlook Express, a very good e-mail program, NetMeeting, a very good internet collaboration tool, FrontPad, a good HTML editor, and NetShow for viewing streaming media. All these also come with IE--for free. Get the picture?

The most major change is probably ďFat 32,Ē the new hard disk system thatís a lot more efficient. On your current 2 GIG hard disk, every file takes 32K--even the zero K and 1K files. Thatís a lot of wasted space. The new system only needs 4K per file, so on a 2 GIG hard disk you can save as much as 500MB, if you have a lot of files.

Of course, if you have used the current DriveSpace utility without problems, as I have, you can use it and get the same results (I recommend that you place all your Internet Favorites and Internet Temporary files on a DriveSpace disk, because it can easily save you hundreds of megabytes of wasted space from all the tiny little files it uses). Some people may find this compelling enough to upgrade, but even though Iím always strapped for hard disk space, itís not enough for me--Iíll just buy a five more ZIP drives and move things from my hard disk to the ZIP disks--at half the price. Plus, I can still use my Norton Utilities and other hard disk utility programs that wonít work under FAT32.

>Utilities

Most of Win98ís features are really utilities. Thereís a new disk defragmenter thatís supposedly smarter about where it puts files. While this is good, you can buy a much better disk defragmenting system that does the same thing, safely, for Win95 (as well as WinNT and even Win98) and includes disk drive repair and data recovery as well. Itís called SprinRite and is from Gibson Research Corporation. It works on hard disks and even ZIP drives.

Win98 has a new, improved ďScanDiskĒ that automatically runs if your computer isnít shut down properly. If youíre a smart user you always run ScanDisk if your computer isnít shut down properly anyway. Same with the disk cleanup feature--something for people who donít spend a few minutes a day deleting temporary files.

There are new features that check system files and replace corrupted ones, and check your system registry and back it up. Those are good features, to be sure, but youíve gotten along without them for years, havenít you? I have.

And if you have a TV card (who does?) then you basically get ďWeb-TVĒ like capabilities, as if your browser isnít enough. You can watch CNN and view their web site at the same time. That sounds like a real productivity enhancer to me.

>Useful features

Win98 does have some features that will come in handy, in the future. One is an on-line upgrade manager that checks for the latest patches, tells you what you need and installs them automatically. You can get an idea of how this works if you have IE4, since it uses a similar system for upgrading and downloading new parts.

And, oh yes, you can finally use multiple monitors at the same time, as Mac users have been able to do for years. Some people will find this valuable. Me, I run my graphics card in high-res mode so I have a lot of pixel-real-estate to work in, and I know how to use ALT-TAB to switch between Windows, or click on the task bar at the bottom of the screen, so I can live without this feature. If you canít, and youíre willing to deal with two graphics cards and all the installation fun Iím sure that will entail, then upgrade away.

>Political reasons

Finally, thereís the political side of why you shouldnít upgrade. In an earlier column I talked about how the only way to really get your message across to the software industry, Microsoft included, was to ďsay it with cash.Ē And hereís your big chance. Software companies make a lot of money from upgrades--thatís why they like to release them regularly (and get ready, because with more web-linked software, I predict youíll have to buy a monthly or yearly ďsubscriptionĒ to software just to keep it running).

Microsoft really has been acting like a bully lately--thinking so highly of itself that it not only bullies other software and hardware makers (even small font designers who pose no threat to it), it even thinks it can bully the United States government, and the world market. On one hand they say theyíre not a monopoly, on the other they encourage all the major computer makers to go to Wall Street to say that if their minor OS upgrade is delayed it will damage the entire world economy. They canít have it both ways.

If you buy Windows 98, youíre voting for Microsoft (and if thatís what you want to do, thatís your decision). If you donít buy Windows 98, youíre voting to say that you think Microsoft is not doing right by you--which is my opinion.

Iím a firm believer that competition is good for the consumer. Microsoft claims they just want to be free to innovate, but innovation has never come all from a single company, especially Microsoft. Look at how the Mac market stagnated because Apple thought all innovation had to come from within. That same thing can and will happen with Windows and the software you must use every day if there arenít other companies with a chance in the market.

Do you really want to encourage Microsoft to charge you for what it had given away for free because it was so desperate to compete with Netscape? (Competition Microsoft would love to and has tried with all its might to crush). Competition is good, and Microsoft has clearly become anti-competitive.

Do you want to say itís OK for Microsoft not to fix buggy software? Look at Word, which has major bugs that have yet to be fixed (outlining, document map, graphics that disappear) because Microsoft seems unconcerned about the competition from Lotus and Corel. What are you going to do, switch to another word processor? Probably not.

So you can continue to send your money to Microsoft, thereby telling them you think theyíre doing a fine job, or you can hold off buying Windows 98 until thereís an absolutely compelling reason to do so. Holding off might also tell them that they should be charging $50 for this upgrade, since half of what theyíre ďsellingĒ theyre already giving away for free.

When should you upgrade? When you buy a new computer--thatís a good time because then you get a totally fresh installation, and besides, it wonít be long before you canít buy a new computer with Windows 95. Or if you need some new DVD or TV or other device driver thatís better supported.

But until you really need this upgrade, think long and hard about buying this upgrade. Your $100 might be a lot better spent, and the message you send to Microsoft might just be priceless.

>Anti-competitive

Itís hard to have over 90% of a market without being a monopoly. Yet  Microsoft claims it is not a monopoly. Most people donít understand why this is important, or why it is dangerous.

MS has become such an industry bully that in any other industry people would be outraged. This is like having only one phone company, only one car company, or only one airline to choose from--and imagine the "innovation" and value that breeds.

People get confused because they think, ďWell, there are lots of brands of computers to choose from,Ē without realizing that while the computers are from different companies, the thing that makes them run all comes from the same place. It would be like buying a Cadillac and getting the same interior you get with a Hyundai--thatís not choice.

The danger in this situation is two-fold. First, once you get locked into the Microsoft system (and I admit that even I am locked into it--with a big investment in software and learning), itís expensive, and difficult to get out.

But the real economic danger lies a few years down the road, especially if the anti-trust suit fails, when Microsoft has even less competition and even less reason to stay ďin line.Ē At that point, Microsoft can start to do and charge whatever it wants. What are you, or the government going to do about it? So suddenly youíre paying $20 a month to use Windows. Every month. And $20 more for Word. Itís like a cable bill from hell. And yet youíre hooked. Microsoft calls it innovation--after all, you get monthly upgrades with features you may or may not need, and hopefully, regular bug-fixes. If you donít like it, what are you going to do? Youíll have no choice.

Microsoft is becoming the USSR of the software world. They give you what they want to give you and you will like it and thereís no escape. ďYou will wear these brown shoes with your black outfit because you donít have any choice and eat this pumpernickel bread with your spaghetti because we say they taste good together.Ē

I used to be a big fan of Microsoft--they have done good things for the computer world, and I use and like Windows. But I donít want to give away my choice to Microsoft. I donít trust them, or any single company to make all the decisions in my computing life.

Computers are too important to our lives now to entrust them to any one company. Yet this is what is happening now and frankly, it frightens me. The best way you can make your voice heard today is to ďsay it with cashĒ and not buy the Win98 upgrade. Itís simple, and it makes sense--you donít really need it yet anyway.

Update: Iím not the only one who feels this way. Read these articles to see some additional perspectives:

ZD Net: Win98 upgrade problems
 

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Daniel Will-Harris is a designer and author whose work can be found at http://www.will-harris.com. His site features TypoFile Magazine and Esperfonto, the webís only typeface selection system. He may be reached via e-mail.

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Copyright Daniel Will-Harris, 2001, All Rights Reserved