Is this really a Window into the future?

Microsoft launch: Computer experts unimpressed by hype
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Technology Correspondent

The world's largest computer software launch went ahead last night amid a flurry of industry hype and eager anticipation from technology buffs.

Microsoft's Windows 95 package has been hailed as "revolutionary", "sexy" and "a giant leap forward for computer-man".

The hype surrounding Windows 95 hit Britain late last night and kept on rolling. From Aberdeen to Brentford, 14 of the PC World superstores stayed open until 1am this morning, anticipating "hundreds" of customers.

This morning the Times was free for the first time in its 200-year history, its printing costs paid for by the software giant from Redmond, near Seattle. Meanwhile, commuters arriving at London's Liverpool Street station today faced a station forecourt occupied by a training company giving away 4,000 brochures detailing its new courses on how to use the new Windows 95 operating system.

Yet a number of industry observers reckon that in software terms, Windows 95's clothes are threadbare.

Both Apple Computer and IBM, which make rival operating systems, claim that they have been able to offer the facilities available through Windows 95 for some time - in Apple's case, since 1989.

Walter Mossberg, writing in the Wall Street Journal, commented this month: "Windows 95 offers no big improvements: it's more like a Mac." Stewart Alsop, executive vice-president of Infoworld magazine, said: "On a scale of absolute technology, Windows 95 is nothing to write home about." Lawrence Magid, a US software consultant, added: "It's not so great as to leave us breathless or bedazzled."

Veterans of the software industry also warn that today's launch is the first version of the product - which means that it may have hidden "bugs" that may not turn up for months, but could have dramatic effects when they do. These would have to be fixed by a later release - already anticipated in January.

Nick Graves, Apple UK's marketing manager for operating systems, said: "Our view is that [Windows 95] doesn't take away our technology lead. The Apple Macintosh still has a cheaper cost of ownership, according to independent research."

The operating system is a program which organises the resources of the computer on which it is running. It acts as a go-between for the central processor (which can perform a huge number of calculations very quickly), and the "peripherals" of the computer, such as keyboard, monitor screen, disc drives and external data links.

The quality of the operating system determines how useful the computer is. The more effective it is, the more programs it can run at once and the more efficiently it uses the finite resources of the processor when a number of different programs are running at once.

By Microsoft's own schedule, Windows 95 is almost nine months late. The key aspects are that it uses the full capability of modern processors to perform 32-bit calculations, it can recognise whether a new peripheral is a printer or a modem when it is plugged in, and can run many programs at once - known as "multi-tasking".

Yet Apple's proprietary operating system has offered all these features for between six and nine years. And IBM's OS/2 Warp operating system, launched in January, also performs the same functions.

However, Microsoft's greater marketing muscle - derived from the fact that it was allied with IBM during earlier battles for the PC market in the 1980s - means that it predominates. Roughly 85 per cent of personal computers run Windows, while about 10 per cent are Apple machines, running its proprietary operating system. The other 5 per cent is a mixture, including OS/2 Warp.

Microsoft has also been slow to admit that most people will need to buy extra memory chips to get the best out of their new product.

Most PCs come equipped with 4 megabytes of RAM (random access memory), which stores programs while they are running. However, Windows 95, which itself occupies 15 million lines of code, will need computers that have 8 Mb of RAM. The upgrade will cost about pounds 400, but memory chips are in short supply worldwide, and also are a favourite target of thieves. Thefts of such chips from offices around the UK are worth about pounds 200m a year.