Microsoft chairman Bill Gates had a rough go of it two weeks ago at the Windows World Conference in Chicago when his soon-to-be-released operating system, Windows 98, crashed and burned at a televised trade show, quickly making headline news around the globe. Don't you just hate it when that happens? I could just hear the smug snickers of Mac users everywhere surging to uproarious belly laughter. A little humble pie never hurt anyone, I suppose.
But I gotta stand by my man and tell you that I've been using Windows 98 for six months and, having survived three beta test releases, can testify that Windows 98 is a substantial improvement over Windows 95. Bill was just having a bad day.
I've installed the new operating system software on my Pentium desktop with 64 MB RAM and also on my 486 laptop with just 16 MB RAM and have experienced little disruption or dreaded "fatal exception" errors. In fact, Windows 98 has been quite dependable. The beta software recognized all my existing hardware and peripheral devices and even installed new device drivers for improved performance.
This isn't to say that Win98 is perfect, of course. I've had my fair share of "oh well" moments that are typical of our technological revolution in progress. But as a whole, this operating system upgrade has proven to be stable. Realize this is an upgrade to your system software, not to your current applications.
Many of the changes in Windows 98 are subtle and may actually go unnoticed by most users, since they are "under the hood" improvements. All the updates and patches that have been necessary for Windows 95 since it's debut in August 1995 are all integrated into Windows 98. There is improved support for hardware with over 1,200 new drivers now available and new system monitors run stealth in the background, detecting possible conflicts or trouble spots.
I've already raved about the new system utilities in a previous column, but these are real winners, especially the Disk Cleanup utility. This program regularly scans the hard drive for extraneous files, such as temporary files, that can be automatically deleted to free up more disk space. The new FAT32 conversion tool is another utility that can free as much as 30 percent of your hard disk, according to industry testers.
The most obvious changes in Windows 98 are already available if you've upgraded to the latest version of Microsoft's browser, Explorer 4.0, and have enabled the Active Desktop features. In this mode, you can view active Web content on your desktop as well as Web channels that deliver Internet content directly to your PC.
It's hard to visualize the Active Desktop unless you've really seen it, but imagine a web page that behaves almost like wallpaper on your desktop with all your own desktop icons still in place, except that the web page is "live" in the background. It's slick, but I still question the practical value of the Active Desktop unless you have a high-speed Internet connection open at all times.
The Internet Explorer browser is heavily integrated into Windows 98 and while this software endures as a contentious issue between Microsoft and the Justice Department, MS seemed to fare much better in this arena than Gates did with his Win98 demonstration during the same week. April 21st was Microsoft's day in court to appeal the December 1997 injunction that declared Internet Explorer to be a "separate" product, but the Appeals Court did not rule, instead taking the matter under advisement.
This grudge match stems from a 1994 consent decree in which Microsoft agreed not to require computer manufacturers to license other software products with its operating system. The decree explicitly stated, however, that "this position shall not be construed to prohibit Microsoft from developing integrated products."
Since that time there have been rulings, injunctions and appeals related to the definition of Explorer: Is it a "separate" product or is it "integrated"? Does it really matter at this point, since the injunction only affects Windows 95? Thanks to the slow grinding wheels of justice, the matter will most likely be moot by June 25.
That's the official release date for Windows 98, barring any more public faux pas. For more information on Windows 98, visit Microsoft's website. If you're interested, you'll also find a blow-by-blow description of the "demo-drama" in Chicago as well at this website.
Fear not, when you upgrade to 98. You probably won't have the same troubles that Bill Gates suffered.