Windows 98: To upgrade or not to upgrade?

To hear Microsoft tell it, consumer PC users can hardly wait for the opportunity to junk the 3-year-old Windows 95 operating system and move up to its successor, Windows 98.The press release announcing the otherwise ho-hum details of the ship date (June 25!

To hear Microsoft tell it, consumer PC users can hardly wait for the opportunity to junk the 3-year-old Windows 95 operating system and move up to its successor, Windows 98.

The press release announcing the otherwise ho-hum details of the ship date (June 25!) and pricing (the same thing you paid for Windows 95!) also includes breathless quotes from a Microsoft (MSFT) marketing director who maintains "Windows 98 is catching fire among the PC enthusiasts," citing results from a magazine survey showing the majority of Windows users planning to switch will do so within six months of the launch.






See ZD Net Products for a comprehensive look at, and countdown to, Windows 98, including a Quick Poll.




But what will they get for their $89-$109 and the time they spend installing the software?

Company officials brag about quicker performance and data-storage improvements that will free up an average of 28 percent more hard-disk space for users upgrading from Windows 95, tweaks that will appeal to home and office Windows 98 users alike.

But some of the meatiest improvements -- such as the ability to watch digital video disc-format movies and receive television broadcasts on the PC -- are aimed squarely at the consumer market, and they're hardly things many home PC users can't live without, according to industry analysts.

"The digital photos and the games are neat. Families interested in the multimedia stuff will find things here that appeal to them," said Peter Krasilovsky, an analyst with Arlen Communications, in Bethesda, Md. And while he said, "There's no question, this is a superior product" to Windows 95, is it a must-have for the home PC user?

Not necessarily, Krasilovsky and other analysts said.

Fixing Win95
Ironically, one of the new OS's most valuable improvements has as much to do with inherent flaws in Windows 95 as it does with the assets of the new software, said Rob Enderle, analyst with Giga Information Group, in Santa Clara, Calif.

"I think a reason to upgrade that's more compelling than all the gee-whiz DVD stuff is the fact that it fixes a lot of the original Win95 glitches," Enderle said. "By installing it, you will crash much less often, and it will run much faster."

This -- as even Microsoft officials admit -- is hardly the basis for a slam-dunk marketing campaign.

" 'Buy Windows 98 -- it sucks less!' is certainly not the ad slogan I'd want," Enderle said.

Nonetheless, the company will hammer home the point of Windows 98's basic reliability in pushing the new OS, officials said. (They're opting for "Works Better, Plays Better" as the official marketing pitch.)

The song remains (mostly) the same
At first glance, Windows 98 doesn't look much different than Windows 95, and that's by design, according to Rob Bennett, group product manager for the new OS at Microsoft, in Redmond, Wash.

Users in focus groups overwhelmingly requested tweaks such as the networking improvements that will allow for quicker Internet downloads, but they also made it clear that "They didn't want to have to learn how to use a completely different product," Bennett said.

The company focused on streamlining the user's navigation stream between different applications, making it simpler to switch between e-mail, word processors, spreadsheets and Web browsers by virtue of what effectively functions as a universal toolbar in the "Active Desktop."

The bottom line is that the new OS makes it simpler to perform basic computing tasks, is cheaper to maintain because of added help-desk support options, and offers more consumer entertainment options -- from DVD to the native Universal Serial Bus support that will allow users to easily plug-in hardware add-ons such as digital cameras, Bennett said.

Sleeper hit?
Interestingly, another thing that will distance Windows 98 from its predecessor is the pre-launch hype -- or lack thereof. While Windows 95 was born amid an unprecedented media blitz, no such fanfare is planned for Windows 98.

"We think this OS will have a kind of sleeper quality to it," Bennett said. "We believe it will become steadily more popular as word of mouth spreads."