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New Windows, same perspective?

Has the much-hyped 95 version fulfilled its promise?
We waited for Windows 95 as if it were the coming dawn of a new era. The excitement caught the attention of television and newspapers and people queued to be the first to buy it. When it was new, Windows 95 was news, but now it is six months old, a mature age in the computer industry. Has it delivered its promise?

Evaluating something as large and as complex as Windows 95 is not easy. From the customer's standpoint, it should not be necessary at all. When Windows 3.0 was launched, the world bought it voraciously. They knew they needed it and there was no reason to ask why. The debate over Windows 95 is a sign of how small a step forward it actually is. The operating system has not been selling as well as Microsoft's, admittedly large, forecasts and advertising budgets led us to believe it should. Why not?

Windows 95 promised to take us into the world of 32-bit computing. It would be powerful, reliable and easier to use. If a machine could run Windows 3.0 "acceptably" it would run Windows 95 "acceptably". Whether or not this claim is true is important. If you have to add the cost of an upgrade to that of a new operating system, it looks a lot less attractive.

How fast a computer runs is the sort of question that can be argued forever, but most users agree that Windows 95 needs more power than Windows 3.0. It simply does not make sense to run Windows 95 on anything less than a 486DX33 with 8Mb, preferably 12Mb of RAM.

In theory, what makes Windows 95 revolutionary is that it has a 32-bit processor. The advantage of 32-bit software is that it should run faster and be more reliable. Unfortunately, the situation is not so clear cut. Windows 95 incorporates large chunks of 16-bit code so that it can be compatible with programs written for Windows 3. It does a reasonably good job of seeing us through the transition, but it is not totally crash-proof, and there are some Windows applications that do not run well under Windows 95.

For the change to be worth it, 32-bit applications have to offer something more. Unfortunately most of them do not. At best, the average 32-bit application runs at about the same speed as a 16-bit application but hogs far more disk space and demands far more RAM. At the moment, 32-bit applications have a reputation for being greedy, lazy and just too demanding given that they deliver very little extra. Perhaps, as programmers have more time to find their way around in their new world, this will change. But now there is not a 32-bit application that makes it worth the trouble of changing to Windows 95.

One advantage of Windows 95 that is real is the improved ability to multi- task. As long as you restrict yourself to running nothing but new applications Windows 95 will do more than one thing at a time. The latest Microsoft Word will spellcheck as you write and you can log on to the Internet, pick up your mail and download a file while still working on a document. How important you consider this sort of ability depends on how you use your computer.

Another success for 95 is its networking. It offers a better way of thinking about the integration between your PC and the outside world. However, if your local network is based on the popular Novell Netware there are still problems in getting everything working together. The slow take-up of Windows 95 by larger companies has been influenced by the difficulty of getting their corporate networks to perform reliably.

This all sits uncomfortably with Windows 95's biggest selling point - its ease of use. While the programmers and technical experts were looking to the next generation of Windows to make it a 32-bit world, the average user was being sold the idea that it would be easier to use. The sales pitch glossed over the fact that a new user interface was unnecessary - the old Windows 3 was not broken and Microsoft did not need to fix it. The new look is stylish, but when it comes to interfaces, what you know is what you find easy.

There is no overall organising philosophy behind the design, which results in a proliferation of options. Users are often confused - is this the right way to do it or is another way better? There are even distinct styles of using Windows 95. Some people use the desktop, some use the task bar, some use the file windows, some use the Explorer and some even use the original Program and File Manager, which are still there if you look hard enough. This can best be described as a mess, but after some resistance, most users get to like the new interface and find changing back strangely claustrophobic. You could say that it is not a good interface but it is a better one.

So should you stick to Windows 3 or shift to Windows 95? The simple answer is that sooner or later you will upgrade - but there is no great rush. You can safely wait until you see an application that tempts you, or better, until you buy your next machine.