If the cosmetics business is selling hope in a bottle, it's safe to say the software business is selling dreams on a disk. A year ago, when Microsoft Corp. started letting out details about its upcoming version of Windows, the dream was that the new operating system would replace much of the software on your computer. The new Windows would take over file management and backup, system monitoring, remote access, and other chores that many users bought extra programs to handle. Beyond that, built-in no-frills applications programs called "applets" would replace your personal calendar program, maybe even your word processor.
Reality has set in as Microsoft puts the final touches on Windows 95, which is set to go on sale in late August. The test version of Windows 95 that I am running is solid, and it marks a huge improvement in usability over Windows 3.1.
STACKER SHOCK. But some of the add-ons that make computing more convenient and reliable have fallen by the wayside. Others have moved to a "plus pack" that will add $50 to the near-$100 cost of the main program, and some of the remaining applets aren't very good. As a result, Win95 users, like car buyers, will have to pay extra for some of the added features they want. And at least a small slice of the $7.4 billion U.S. software industry will be able to thrive in the gaps left by mighty Microsoft.
Take, for example, disk-compression software, which allows you to double the amount of data you can pack onto your hard disk. Windows 95, like recent versions of MS-DOS, contains a compression program called DriveSpace. But the Win95 edition provides lousy compression on drives bigger than about 300 megabytes.
The reason, Microsoft developers maintain, is their commitment to allowing the new Windows to run on the millions of existing machines with 386 microprocessors, which are two generations behind today's Pentium chips. State-of-the-art compression software slows these machines to a crawl, so Microsoft dumbed down the program. If you have a 486 or Pentium computer, and want the good stuff, you'll have to buy the plus pack or one of the non-Microsoft products that are sure to sprout.
Microsoft also scrapped plans for a component that would allow you to run your PC from another computer--say, a laptop--via phone lines. Instead, you'll need non-Microsoft software for remote access (BW--May 8). And Schedule+, a time-planning program which was bundled in the last version of Windows 3.1, will become part of Microsoft Office instead.
Unless you have a taste for living dangerously, you'll want to buy programs to keep an eye on your system, warn you of impending problems, and help you recover from a disk crash, loss of setup information, or other catastrophe. When you install Win95, it offers to create an emergency startup disk, but I was not able to figure out what to do after booting up from the emergency disk. Symantec Corp.'s Norton Utilities for Windows 95, now available in a $30 "preview" to Win95 testers, makes the process a whole lot easier.
There are some good features in the Windows 95 package. I found the backup software, which allows you to archive files to floppies or tape, easy to set up and use. And HyperTerminal, licensed from Hilgraeve Inc., may be the only general-purpose telecommunications software that you will need to call bulletin boards.
Getting the extra software necessary to run Windows 95 safely and conveniently at least doubles the initial cost of the operating system--especially since most of the Windows 3.1 versions you may be running won't work unless upgraded. But in the end, consumers may well be thankful that Microsoft couldn't quite chew all it bit off. Even if the software left out of Win95 is only a small slice of the business, innovators will find opportunities--and healthy competition in software benefits us all.