June 10, 1999 6:10 AM PDT

Is Windows Second Edition upgrade worth it?

Today's launch of Microsoft's Windows 98 SE operating system will be a decidedly low-key affair, at least compared to the introduction of its predecessor.

Some of the improvements to the operating system also lack punch, analysts say. The average Windows user may not need the update, they say.

"It's an incremental upgrade," said Dwight Davis, an analyst with Summit Strategies. "It's hard to get really excited, because there's really nothing new. Even Microsoft is treating this as a yawn."

Windows 98 SE, or Second Edition, will be bundled with almost all new computers, although retail sales are expected to be slow. "It will ship in respectable numbers, to the degree that people buy PCs," Davis said.

Windows 98 SE was originally tested as a collection of bug fixes, and it has since mushroomed into a full-fledged retail release, engendering some controversy along the way. (See related story.) Because of that evolution, the thrust of the upgrade may not be noticeable to the average Windows user, as its core improvements consist of expanded support for Internet and home networking technologies that have not yet been widely adopted.

Within the next few years, SE will be followed by the consumer release of Windows 2000. Plus, Microsoft later this year will roll out the next version of the corporate OS, formerly called Windows NT but now called Windows 2000. Following so quickly on the heels of Windows 98 and even Windows 95, there may be a danger that introductions of relatively minor upgrades, such as SE, will result in bombarded users overlooking releases.

Windows 98 SE hits stores almost a year to the day after Microsoft launched Windows 98, a launch with much fanfare, the likes of which won't be seen today: No "Route 98" debut party in San Francisco. No "Midnight Madness" promotions at PC retailers. No drop-off in sales of PCs as consumers await the introduction of Microsoft's latest release with bated breath.

The impact of that release was immediate: Consumers who had held off on buying a PC returned to the stores in droves, and computer sales skyrocketed over the summer. The shrink-wrapped version of the new operating system topped software sales for months and became the top-selling software of 1998. Soon after the release, Microsoft weathered a backlash of complaints from users, frustrated by the process of upgrading older PCs to the system-taxing OS.

Although Windows 98 was never presented as the revolutionary upgrade that was Windows 95, it did include a revamped user interface and a host of new features. This time around, both Microsoft and outside observers say it is unlikely that Windows 98 SE will have anywhere near the same impact of its predecessors.

The fruits of market domination
But because Microsoft dominates the consumer desktop operating system market, the new release will likely become the de facto standard, at least until the consumer version of Windows 2000 is ready to ship--which could take upwards of three years.

In fact, Windows 98 users can get the majority of the SE upgrade--including bug fixes and the latest version of the Internet Explorer browser--through a free download. Windows 98 users interested in the full upgrade can order a CD-ROM for $19.95 from the Microsoft Web site. For a consumer who doesn't have Windows 98, the price for SE is $109.

Meanwhile, users of the older OS, Windows 95, may encounter the same problems which befell users who tried to upgrade the last time around, because most Windows 95 computers are at least a year old.

Those who upgrade, or purchase a new PC with Windows 98 SE pre-loaded, will find the new OS more stable, Davis said. However, the upcoming corporate operating system, Windows 2000, is touted as Microsoft's most reliable. "Microsoft doesn't claim that Windows 98 is its high-stability OS, although [SE] does have the patches and fixes and probably has fewer glitches in functionality," Davis said.

In addition to overall increased dependability, Windows 98 SE features the new Internet connection sharing feature. Internet Connection Sharing (ICS) allows multiple computers to share one Internet connection and is the company's first step toward its stated goal of driving widespread adoption of home networking.

"Windows 98 Second Edition is an important step in our efforts to provide significant improvements in such areas as home networking," said David Cole, vice president of the Consumer Windows division at Microsoft.

 

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