Windows 98 – or is it a year too soon

It was an inspired move to start naming software after the date - Windows 95, Office 95, even Lotus 123 – 97 has joined in. When they did likewise with car number plates, the effect on sales was so remarkable that the UK motor industry now depends on the regular car upgrades that all this encourages.

And so now, as the release of Windows 98 is confirmed for sometime next year, it is right to wonder if it is indeed a new something to zoom ahead with. Or is it an upgrade too soon.

While Windows 98 is not an upgrade for those running Windows NT - the choice for running specialist applications such as video editing software - its new features are destined to appear in the next NT release. Named NT 5.0, in the quaint old style, you will hear more of this late next year. The ‘plug and play’ feature of Windows 98, which makes using different hardware, such as plug in cameras and TV tuners, much easier, is tipped for inclusion.

The main thrusts of Windows 98 are to do with hardware, system management and the Internet. It will have Microsoft’s web browser Internet Explorer 4 built-in so that looking at data on the network, the hard disk or the Internet can all happen in the same place. Those stymied by the idea of launching unfamiliar applications are likely to appreciate this shortcut. Here too with other beginner friendly changes where a single click, instead of problematic double clicks, will launch applications. Another feature would allow say, the system manager to drop a web page in a folder so that opening the folder opens the web page by default. The ‘page’ might have instructions or video clips to explain what to do next. As mentioned in previous issues, included too will be ‘NetMeeting’ – a sort of Internet telephone, and ‘push channels’ which is are clever ways of obtaining information without having to go hunt for it.

Arguably too much of how things work can be customised and often beyond recognition – the screen saver could made into a web page news ticker, folders and favourite web pages can be made in toolbars, while email can arrive looking like web pages too. If that’s confusing, so is the idea that most of the look and feel features of Win 98 are little different from the free IE4 upgrade available from this month.

What aren’t for free are the enhancements deeper inside. One expectation is that next year’s computer will have a TV tuner on board. Windows will not only be able to work with it, picking up television and data from broadcast channels but to connect to an online programme guide. It lets you set reminders for the programmes you want to watch, or lest you work too long, switch to them at the right time. There’s talk of ‘Enhanced Television’, not my capitals by the way, where Web pages come through the broadcast channel instead of the phone line.

Numerous hardware technologies that have become more established will be built in too. There will be support for infrared devices that provide wireless printing and networking, as well as support for the ‘Universal Serial Bus’ found on today’s computers. The USB connector makes it easier to connect peripherals, such as a ‘quickcam’ for videoconferencing and as the USB provides a power line, there’s a good chance of dispensing with the power adapters that come with every add-on. Also those that fit additional graphics cards will be able to run two or more monitors at the same time – Apple machines had this ages ago but now with Web pages, TV and more competing for attention a strange new need is fulfilled.

Finally, and in response to the estimates of how much it really costs to maintain a PC, there are a variety of administration enhancements. When users need help a Windows 98 Helpdesk brings together online help, troubleshooting wizards and access to the Web. There’s an email bug reporter, a tune up tool that schedules routine checks of system files while disks are repaired automatically after a system crash. Intriguingly, System Update checks that the machine has the latest software drivers and bug fixes – it runs on the Internet, does a system audit and highlights the items that needs updating. It can even be set to do this and install the software as you sleep.

Over the coming months, news of other enhancements – especially in the entertainment area, are likely to trickle through. Microsoft are saying that they’re not expecting Windows 98 to be a blockbuster release – whether that’s so or they’re playing the under-promise, over-deliver game remains to be seen. What is clear is that with the most sexy features built into the free IE4, getting Windows 98 will have to be about more than having this years look.

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