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By Derek Clarkson

It's only a month now until the scheduled (providing Microsoft can adhere to this) release date for Windows'95. There's been a lot of press about it and although I don't usually like to get into the opinion game, a lot of people have asked me for mine so I'm going to put it down here. Please feel free to shoot me down at anytime.

There's no doubt in my mind that Windows'95 will be one of the biggest events in computing this year, with possibly only the sudden explosion of interest and use of the Internet beating it. Something I'm sure Microsoft is annoyed about as it takes attention away from them, and they can't claim responsibility for it. But still without a doubt, Windows'95 will be the biggest fan fair the industry has ever seen. The press over the past year or so since the first beta's have been released has been intense and there is very little doubt in my mind that most of the computer press are, shall we say, `MS friendly' or possible `MS inside'.

Probably the most recent example of blatant 'MS friendly' press that I can think of was a recent 4 Corners show on ABC TV. It was supposedly an in-depth view of Microsoft, how they started, got to where they are now and what is going on. I watched the show with interest to see what was happening and it was very interesting, right up until they started interviewing Bill Gates himself. The reporter asked him about market shares and MS dominance, and the reply was that Microsoft didn't control or influence the market, it was the person in the street who walks into a store a decides what he wants to buy, that decides what is going to happen. It was such a naive comment that I couldn't believe that this was Bill Gates saying it. But to make it worse, the reporter doing the interview didn't do anything about it and spent the rest of the documentary just letting Bill say what he liked.

It was quite amazing really. Firstly, it came across to me that either Bill Gates has no idea of what is going on and really is the nerdy big kid type of guys he is often made out to be. Or that he thinks we are all gullible enough to swallow this. At first glance what he said was quite true. Every person in the street who goes into a store and buys a products is helping to decide which product will become the market leader. This is of course assuming a level playing field and that all products receive the same amount of store space, advertising, etc.

But that's a fairy land concept. In reality, buying computer products is no different to supermarket shopping. What you will buy is dependant on what ads you have seen, what products the supermarket decides to put on it's shelves, and how prominent they are. If the supermarket is only stocking Microsoft products or devotes most of it's space to them, how much choice is the consumer going to really have ? The result of watching this show was that I was really disappointed with the 4 Corners documentary, they failed in my eyes to really get to grips with the true Microsoft and to really ask them some *real* questions. To give 4 Corners their due, I can only conclude that MS, like a rock star, told them what they could and could not ask.

When OS/2 2.0 first came out, the press seemed to do one of two things. Either trash it because it didn't support Windows 3.1, some programs would not run and limited driver support, or alternatively, ignore it completely. There where relatively few around who were willing to fly in the face of Windows and actually consider it as a viable solution. Many basically gave the opinion that it was a dead operating system before it got off the ground. After all, who could compete with Windows and the soon to save the planet 'Windows NT'. I remember vividly at the time workmates who after reading various magazines, simply refused to even consider OS/2 and were hanging out to get NT.

Not long after came a very rude awakening as NT finally arrived and suddenly everyone found out that they couldn't use it. Many because it's hardware requirements where as heavy as any of the UNIX flavours and the cost of upgrading to run it was simply out of the question. Plus, unless running a network, it didn't really offer them that much.

Unfortunately IBM failed to capitalise (again!) on a failed MS promise. Microsoft, perhaps realising that they needed to do something fast, quickly started to announce what was at that time known as 'Chicago', an affordable, new and powerful, user orientated operating system that everyone could have. This was about the same time as IBM released OS/2 2.1. Considerably better than 2.0, 2.1 started to grow amongst the population. Although IBM bungled the marketing and Microsoft was again grabbing every headline it could find, more and more users were becoming aware that waiting for a solution from Microsoft would be years away, and that OS/2 was actually a viable working operating system, perhaps not as bad as much of the press would have them believe.

It was about this time that we started OS/2 Zone. I came up with the idea of a independent street level OS/2 magazine because I was seeing amongst my friends, an 'underground' movement towards OS/2. It wasn't through the press or any advertising, but through peer group contact as one person would show another that the press was wrong and OS/2 did work. Yeah, there where still problems, driver issues being the biggest, but even with all that, OS/2 allowed them to do far more than DOS and Windows did. Rapidly, OS/2 was spreading from person to person like democratic politics in China, under the noses of the media.

Since then, the situation has continued to hot up. Microsoft has continued to grab press space and time with announcements about this feature or that feature of Chicago/Windows'95. However they have been quite cunning about it. Knowing that the computer press is very much gadget and gizmo driven, they have not made much noise themselves, merely made regular announcements and relying on the market momentum of Windows 3.1 and the craving for new toys to generate and keep an on going interest by the press. This has worked beautifully. So much so, that at least one MS official has now come out and apologised for the amount of press that a vapourware product has generated over the last year.

Are they truly sorry? I doubt it. As Sam said in one of his previous columns, Microsoft has had billions of dollars worth of advertising, all paid for by the mass media. I cannot see them being sorry at all, looking back it is quite obvious that they have been working to keep the press interested is Windows'95 and nothing else. Why else would they announce stuff when they knew the product to be months, if not years, away from production. Sorry ? If I was them I would be sitting back laughing my head off. But it's beginning to cost them. Over the pas six months, more and more users and press and gone from being 'MS friendly' to '???(Not MS) friendly'. They have decided that enough is enough from Microsoft and are looking for alternatives, but are not sure what. This seems to be mainly due to several things. Firstly with the press basically being so Microsoft orientated little attention has been paid to OS/2, UNIX or anything else. Secondly, IBM's repeated failures in advertising. They are getting better. But when it comes to doing advertising that has wide coverage and gets your attention, IBM really sucks.

So I am speaking to an increasing number of people asking about OS/2, not so much because of what it can offer them, but because they realise that they need a better operating system, and quite frankly, are either scared stiff of Microsoft, or view them with an enormous amount of distrust and dislike.

One of the things with Microsoft is that people are sick of waiting. Some people I know have been waiting for up to four years for an operating system from them that can live up the promises made when NT was first announced. If it had been anyone but Microsoft, the press would have buried them long ago, but MS has a couple of things going for it. Firstly the Windows market momentum. Secondly, arguably the best marketing team in the world. And thirdly, a management who will seemingly stoop to almost any underhanded trick to get what they want. Despite what ever pretexts of innocence that Microsoft give out, the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) don't probe companies just because they are bored and want something to do. And with the current situation the DOJ have three probes running and another is being worked on by their European counterparts.

Then there is the lack of trust. Microsoft had it's innocence bubble nicely blown away by several things recently. Firstly there is the issue that Windows'95, whilst being vastly superior to DOS and Windows 3.1, is still based on the same code and has many of the same problems. People have been waiting a long time for a completely new operating system. They have been lead to believe that Windows'95 was just that. A brand new operating system, without any of the problems of DOS and Windows and capable of really utilising the machinery they have been buying. In fact, what has been shown to be the case, is that Windows'95 is still running much of the old code and technologies. Whilst delivering on some promises, it is not the completely new operating system users had been promised, and like NT, is quite like to require the majority of users to upgrade their hardware.

After the first of the revelations about Windows'95, people started getting suspicious. Next came the Microsoft Network (MSN) issue. Microsoft seems to be reluctant to use any software not developed by themselves. This seemed to start when they brought out DoubleSpace is DOS 6.0.

The question is - Why did Microsoft have to come out with it's own (and inferior) compression software, when there was a variety of better software being made by third party companies ? There are undoubtedly a number of answers. IBM has managed to work with third party companies with PC DOS 6.3 and PC DOS 7.0 to create a DOS that on a feature for feature basis, out performs MS DOS every time. Interesting thoughts. Personally I think that Microsoft has developed an attitude where they will primarily try to develop something themselves before working with other established industry leaders in the field. Probably not so much out of arrogance, but out of the concept of coming up with a better product and therefore establishing themselves as the market leaders.

Admirable concept. No matter how good a product is there is always a better one waiting to be written and take over it's place. So it's a matter of natural selection with the people with the best products becoming the new market leaders. But several things are going wrong for MS here. Firstly, no company, not even Microsoft, is big enough to do this in the computer industry. There's simply too much out there to cover. Secondly, one company trying to put products on the market in every area and seeming to always think that they are the only ones who know how things should be done, gets other people's backs up like nothing else.

If Microsoft wants a better position in the market it should realise when it has a dud product and work with others instead. IBM has learned how to do this and the results are better products. PC DOS and the OS/2/Stacker bundle are examples of working with third party companies. Lately, the only thing that Microsoft has done in this direction is to realise that their Money product just wasn't going to cut it, and therefore, try to take over Intuit. They could have saved themselves a lot of money and hassle if they had just worked with Intuit rather than trying to own them. And now a similar thing is happening with the MSN. It's fair enough that Microsoft should want to create a home for Windows users and I think it's a very good idea. Go to it. But why not work with the biggest network in the world ? Why does Microsoft have to write it's own one from the ground up ? Everyone at the present time wants access to the Internet. Yet Microsoft is not packaging Internet access with it's operating system. Instead you will have to buy it as a separate add-on. This is good for third party software houses, however for the user who has just bought Windows'95 is does mean a further outlay which they will not be inclined to do. Better to just go MSN and take what is offered, it's the safest and cheapest way.

There is one other issue with the MSN that is getting people very scared of MS. And that is the issue of the network scanning you computer for software. The basic idea is that when you log into the network, it does a scan of your hard drive, picks up every MS product on it and asks you if you want to register it through the network or even upgrade to a later version. A very admirable idea and one that people would normally be asking for. But Microsoft have gone astray here as well. Firstly, a lot of people don't like the idea of having their hard drives scanned without their consent. They consider it an invasion of privacy and besides that, they might still have that old copy of Excel they got from work. Secondly, thanks to all the bad publicity MS has been getting recently, they simply don't trust them, would you ?

But lets get back to Windows'95. After various issues of marketing, etc the question remains - is it any good ? This is a question which has yet to be resolved, because it is still vapourware. But from reading a number of reviews, watching a couple of demos and a quick play or two, I think I can safely conclude a few things about it without getting targeted by MS lawyers.

Firstly it definitely has a very sexy interface. Looks good and feels good. Two things that have propelled a number of Microsoft products to fame and fortune. Secondly it does not run Windows programs as well as OS/2. Sounds strange considering it comes from Microsoft. But the basic reason is that it still runs all the old programs in a single Virtual DOS Machine (VDM). Thus if one programs GPF's, it takes the lot with it. Something that can easily be avoided in OS/2 by running the programs in their own VDM's. With Windows'95 the only solution is to upgrade the software to '95 versions. Thirdly, there still appears to be a 'DOS' in there. I say this because I was talking to someone who had tried a recent beta. After a system crash, this person was able to get most of the Windows'95 interface running again after then installing DOS 6.22. Next I think that all this hoo-ha over 'plug and play' is a waste of space and hype. Plug and play is designed to make it easy to configure systems by allowing the system to organise such things as interrupts and to resolve conflicts without you having to worry about them. Great, wonderful, but who for ?

There are only three types of people who are ever likely to get any real benefit from this technology: people building computers for a living, people using notebooks who use a lot of PCMCIA cards, and people who like to fiddle with their hardware a lot. Most users will not be aware of, or need to worry about this at all. So in my mind it is a minor, but nice, feature to have in the system. This last thing to consider too with plug and play and Windows'95 is that old hardware that does not have plug and play capability will still have to be configured the old fashioned way and you will still have to tell Windows'95 that it exists.

Another thing that I think that most people don't realise about Windows'95 and indeed OS/2 in some respects, is that you don't get anything extra out of you established DOS and Windows programs unless you upgrade them. Some people seem to think that the mere presence of Windows'95 on their systems will improve the stability and multitasking of the older programs. Rubbish, they will still crash and you will still run the risk of them taking out your system. OS/2 does give you some ability to improve the multitasking and stability of the DOS and Windows programs by running in different VDMs, but Windows'95 doesn't.

However, even with OS/2, to get really spectacular performance from a program you will want the OS/2 version or equivalent of it. For example, I run such programs as ZOC in preference to a DOS based comms program. With Windows'95, like OS/2, there will be a cost involved to upgrade and I don't think many users have taken that into account, yet. And after all this time, the press are only now starting to look at this issue.

To close, let me make these conclusions. As I said, the release of Windows'95 will be a big affair. But in actuality I think a lot of users are expecting more than it will offer. They will be very happy I think with the look and feel of the interface, and the improvement in speed of some programs. And I think that the level of automation that is built in will win a lot of average users who will be awed by the 'gee wizz' factor. Ultimately though, it will take Windows'95 some time to bed down, probably about a year until Microsoft releases Windows'96.

During that first year a lot of companies will be releasing their Windows'95 products, some of which have already been on hold for almost a year, costing those companies millions in development time. Corporate users will take some time to pick it up as my own experiences in the corporate world has shown me that the corporate computer departments tend to only pick up something when they see no choice. Power users will pick it up quickly as they already have the hardware to run it. Average home users will find that it is not as easy as they have been lead to believe and hardware issues will play a large part in this. Particularly if it does end up requiring more that at first thought in terms of memory and CPU.

I expect that the release of Windows'95 is going to place a lot of focus on OS/2 as a lot of these issues are thrashed out. Not only because Warp is a working and viable opposition to Windows'95, but because the two products are aimed at the same market.

There will undoubtedly be many comparisons between Windows'95 and OS/2 when Windows'95 hits the streets and who wins will very much depend on the personal attitudes of the reviewer doing the comparison.