Windows Nt: Has Its Hour Come?

If you use a computer at work, you're probably looking forward to Windows 95. The new version offers greater ease of use and more powerful software. For plenty of business users, though, Windows 95 may be the wrong move.

I'm not suggesting that you stay with Windows 3.1 after Microsoft Corp.'s new operating system is shipped on Aug. 24. Nor am I recommending that you jump ship to IBM's OS/2. But if you often push your computer to the limit or find that you need more robust networking, extra security, or crash-free performance, you should take a fresh look at Windows NT--Microsoft's heavy-duty operating


Windows NT has been on the market for about two years, but it appeared on few desktops until the 3.5 Workstation version debuted last summer at $319 for a single copy. Although interest has picked up, Microsoft still numbers sales in the hundreds of thousands, compared with 60 million or so copies of Windows 3.1.

EASY UPGRADE. Two factors have hobbled sales of NT. First, it is very power-hungry. When it appeared in 1993, the requirement of 12 to 16 megabytes of RAM looked absurd in a world where most new computers came with 4 megs. Like OS/2, NT can run most Windows 3.1 software, but few programs other than custom applications took advantage of NT's support for long file names or its ability to run many tasks at once. Even Microsoft didn't release a special NT version of its Word and Excel programs until last fall.

All of this is changing. The standard corporate desktop computer will soon be a Pentium with 16 megabytes of RAM, more than enough power to run NT. More important, the NT software shortage is about to end. Microsoft planned Win95 to run the same software as NT. If publishers want the "Designed for Windows 95" logo on their boxes, the programs must be NT-compatible. Under corporate bulk-purchase contracts, an upgrade to either operating system is expected to cost $50 to $100 per computer.

Who should choose NT? Virtually all home users and most smaller businesses can rule it out, because it doesn't provide for no-fuss, plug-and-play hardware installation. NT supports a more limited variety of hardware than Win95, and setting it up to run most effectively requires some expertise. You'll be stuck with a clunky Windows 3.1-style display, including its awkward program and file managers, until NT gets the Win95 desktop in the first half of 1996.

NT's biggest advantage is its robustness. No matter how badly a program crashes, it's almost impossible to produce a system lockup on NT that forces you to reboot--an event that is all too common in Windows 3.1 and is not rendered extinct by Win95. NT is also best at running several programs at once and offers first-rate network security--good enough to meet government standards for sensitive unclassified material.

TURBOCHIPS. Windows 95 runs only on 386, 486, or Pentium-class systems. But if even a Pentium isn't powerful enough for your computing needs, NT comes in versions that run on such hot RISC processors as Digital Equipment Corp.'s Alpha, MIPS Technologies Inc.'s R4000 series, and,

as of mid-June, the PowerPC.

The important news for business in all of this is that a flood of updated applications expected this fall will run with either Win95 or NT and allow companies to select the most appropriate operating system for each machine without the compatibility woes created by mixing PCs and Macintoshes or Windows and OS/2. "We don't expect to see many companies that are all Windows 95 or all NT," says Paul A. Maritz, vice-president in charge of Microsoft's Platforms Group, which handles all operating systems. For many businesses, the operating-systems choices may soon be more complicated. But the improvements will be well worth it.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.