Bugs bite some with Windows 98 upgrades

While users who obtain Windows 98 preloaded on new machines or who do a 'clean install' are likely to encounter few set-up problems, those who attempt to upgrade over an existing version of Windows may find themselves in hot water.

That's the early feedback from customers who have tried to load the final commercial version of the operating system during the past couple of weeks. While Windows 98 did not officially go on sale until June 25, Microsoft has been selectively seeding the market with final code for the past couple of weeks.

"I've been getting exception errors during the upgrade - you know, blue screens of death," said an operating system implementation specialist with a New York law firm. "If you delete certain programs and directories, you can get it to work. But only people who think like us computer people will know to do this."

"Windows 98 works fine from a clean install. But there are hardware and software detection problems if you're [upgrading]," the IS professional continued.

Another systems integrator said he had noticed problems with existing VXD video drivers. "Windows 98 checks the registry for existing applications and drivers. It's supposed to upgrade old drivers automatically if there's a newer version. But it seems like you end up with VXD and WDM [the newer Windows Driver Model] drivers mixed together."

Microsoft officials said that they had not heard about any upgrade problems. "If we did, we'd definitely alert people to compatibility issues beyond what's in the Readme files," said product manager Rob Bennett.

Hardware incompatibilities aren't the only potential problem. "There are lots of conflicts with applications, especially Lotus Notes," said Marie Presti, director of product marketing at SystemSoft, maker of SystemWizard, a troubleshooting tool that several top PC makers are bundling with their Windows 98 machines. SystemSoft has been working with a number of hardware and software vendors to build a knowledge base of known problems and incompatibilities between existing products and Windows 98.

SystemSoft expects the bulk of early upgrade problems to be attributable to incompatibilities between Notes and Windows 98. But disk compression, DOS applications and changes made to the location and workings of Microsoft Fax are all likely to stump Windows 98 customers, too, she said.

Consumers face problems "It's great that Microsoft has fixed 6,000 bugs with Windows 98 and added 1,000 new technical support people to handle calls. The troubleshooters they've built into Windows 98 are good," said Presti. "But these troubleshooters are not ideal for beginning or average users; they're more for advanced users. And they're totally focused on Microsoft software, not third-party software or hardware incompatibilities."

Some of the same issues that plagued Windows 95 users could crop up again to haunt Windows 98, especially incompatibilities between Windows 98 and existing third-party utilities, predicted Joel Diamond, technical director of the Windows Users Group Network. WUGNET maintains a number of online support forums for all versions of Windows on CompuServe and today launched two new forums, SetUp 98 and a Windows 98 Support Forum.

"The installation of Windows 98 on top of Windows 95 may, could, will modify customised settings of users' third-party Internet application utilities," said Diamond.

Like Presti, Diamond commended Microsoft for recognizing in advance that support will be of prime importance to Windows 98 users. But he questioned how well Microsoft's new Windows Update -- a Web site for Windows 98 users to obtain bug fixes, patches, updates and more technical knowledgebase help -- would suit the needs of the new consumers Microsoft is hoping to attract with this release.

"The Update site and new [troubleshooting] wizards are all good, but now [I] have the situation where the computer is telling me I need a new driver and suddenly my computer is going out and installing it without me," he said. "The probability of a user being left in the lurch is extremely high, considering that many drivers may not have to be updated, and an installation of a third-party application may require older drivers to be maintained on the system."