Windows 98: Beta sports few new features for feds

For all the sound and fury that has accompanied its development, Microsoft Corp.'s Windows 98 operating system is likely to have more impact in the political arena than in the government market.

We reviewed the Beta 3 Version, which was released in late December, and we found it to be polished, easy to use and speedy. But only a few of its features, such as improved system configuration tools and broader hardware support, are not already available in Windows NT or as upgrades to Windows 95.

The most important enhancement -- the tight integration of the operating system and World Wide Web browser -- also is the most controversial and the centerpiece of the Justice Department's ongoing antitrust dispute with Microsoft. In fact, Microsoft may be forced to abandon this feature, which from a technical point of view would be a pity because the integration has such a natural feel.

Still, even if Microsoft is able to keep this feature in the shipping version of Windows 98, it is not clear that many agencies will want to upgrade to this operating system because it is geared more toward home use than enterprise use.

Integrated Web browsing means Windows Explorer and the rest of the Windows interface look and act like the Web browser. You can access Web pages from within Windows Explorer, just as you can access local files from within Internet Explorer 4.0. And you can load automatically updating Web objects -- sports, financial reports or weather forecasts -- directly to your desktop.

However, the integrated Web browser in Windows 98 offers no apparent advantage over simply installing Internet Explorer 4.0 under Windows 95.

Performance Gains

Windows 98 also promises improved performance over Windows 95. We do not benchmark beta software, but we did notice faster performance in loading applications and accessing files.

Most of the speed gains are the result of a new disk format, FAT32, which offers significantly faster seek times than the FAT16 employed by Windows 95. It is slow seek times that are generally responsible for slow loading of applications.

It is worth noting that the benefits of FAT32 already are available to users of Windows 95 Release 2, which was made available to original equipment manufacturers for installation on new computers. Also, bear in mind that the FAT32 format is incompatible with that used by any other version of Windows, including NT 4.0. That means that if you have a dual-boot system and boot to another operating system, you won't be able access files on the Windows 98 FAT32 partition.

In addition, Windows 98 promises to make for faster bootups on systems that support the Advanced Configuration and Power Interface. Shutting down the system also is quicker because Windows no longer takes the time to uninitialize drivers while exiting, and the Windows client is no longer forced to communicate with the server before closing down.

These performance gains are welcome, but they may not be enough to convince most agency IS managers to migrate from Windows 3.x or Windows 95 to Windows 98.

More convincing is the arsenal of new and enhanced utilities for managing and optimizing systems. The nifty new Disk Cleanup utility lets you get rid of temporary files, deleted files in the Recycle Bin, ActiveX and Java applets downloaded from the Internet and more. You can even use the new Windows Tune-Up Wizard to schedule these chores for unattended performance. There also is a new Power Management applet that makes it easy to set triggers for turning off the display, powering down the hard drive and other power-saving features. The new System File and Registry checkers help users keep track of changes to critical files and make it easy to restore from backups. The System Configuration Utility is an easier-to-use version of the old SysEdit. The enhancements that were in the Microsoft Plus! add-on package also are included.

One feature that may force some agency IS managers to upgrade to Windows 98 is its support for new hardware technologies. If, for example, you have a device that employs the new Universal Serial Bus -- which allows for higher-speed connections, hot swapping and the attaching of multiple devices to a single port -- you will have to upgrade because no other shipping version of Windows supports the USB. Windows 98 also adds support for digital video disc players, TV tuner cards, infrared connections, the new Advanced Graphics Port cards and NetWare Directory Services.

The biggest obstacle for Windows 98 to overcome -- bigger even than Justice -- may be Windows NT. Microsoft sees Windows NT as the operating system of the future for enterprise users and plans to release a new version of that operating system later this year. Agency managers will find little justification for moving to Windows 98 if they eventually plan to migrate to Windows NT 5.0.

The bottom line: Windows 98 represents a welcome performance tweak and a compatibility update for emerging technologies. But IS managers would be well advised to take a close look at the specific benefits it would add to their current implementation of Windows rather than automatically moving to upgrade.

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