Anyone who pays any attention to the computer scene knows that the biggest news around is the coming of a replacement for Microsoft Windows 3.1. The advent of a new operating system will eventually force every business and individual user to ponder just when to upgrade. But there are more pressing considerations for potential computer buyers and for the millions who have forgone the glitz and graphics of Windows to stick with plain old MSDOS.
For MSDOS users, an eventual upgrade to a graphical user interface--generic computerese for Windows--is inevitable. You can still get your work done, but updates of your favorite programs are getting more and more infrequent, and it was tough to get the new laser printer working with that old word processor.
TIME AND MONEY. Still, there's an argument for waiting. Learning to use Windows ($99 retail) requires an investment of time, effort, and perhaps cash for training. And Microsoft is about to render much of what you will learn obsolete with a product code-named Chicago. Microsoft says Chicago, which will replace both Windows and DOS, will be available to users before the end of the year. The program's debut date has been postponed before, but even if Microsoft can't hit its latest target, the software will probably ship in early 1995.
Chicago promises to be considerably easier to learn and use than Windows 3.1, which has been around since 1992. "I have used it next to regular Windows, and the user interface is, in fact, superior," says Alex Morrow, general manager of product-line architecture for Lotus Development Corp. "It's a lot easier to navigate."
For example, Chicago will make it easier to use several applications at once by keeping a list of running programs on a "task bar" on the screen at all times. That means you can interrupt work on your Monday morning presentation to answer a co-worker's questions about the latest sales data, check your E-mail, then get back to the presentation with, in each case, just the click of a mouse. Perhaps the feature that will please users most: File names, limited to eight characters plus a three-letter "extension" since the dawn of DOS, will be up to 255 characters long, and blanks will be allowed.
Microsoft sells some 2 million copies of Windows 3.1 a month, mainly preinstalled on new machines, so it doesn't want MSDOS users--or computer buyers--to wait for Chicago. Says Microsoft Vice-President Brad A. Silverberg: "In general, I'd recommend switching now. Later, if you want the power of Chicago, you can migrate in 15 to 30 minutes." Cost isn't a big consideration, since Microsoft will offer a Chicago "upgrade" to Windows and DOS users, probably for around $50. Trouble is, much of the investment in learning Windows will be wasted. Silverberg says Microsoft's own tests show that users can learn their way around Chicago in one-fifth the time it takes to learn Windows 3.1.
PLUG IN. If you have to upgrade your computer to take full advantage of graphics-based software, the argument for waiting is even more compelling. Chicago supports a new PC design standard called "plug-and-play" that should make it much easier to set up and upgrade your computer. Any new machine you buy should be plug-and-play--and should come with at least a 340-megabyte hard drive and 8 megabytes of random-access memory. Although Microsoft says Chicago will run on a computer with 4 megabytes of memory, 8--the amount needed to run Windows 3.1 effectively--is a better bet.
For the dwindling band of MSDOS addicts, waiting means putting up with that old software for a while longer. But at least software makers insist they will not abandon non-Windows products. "We are not forcing the decision [to upgrade] on our customers," says Glenn Mella, vice-president of Novell Inc.'s WordPerfect unit. If you've waited this long to make the change, you might as well hold on for a few more months.
EDITED BY STEPHEN H. WILDSTROM By S.W.