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    Tech Test Drive

    Posted at 12:58 p.m. PST Saturday, February 12, 2000

    Windows 2000 isn't perfect, but it's stable

    Consumers won't get to the NT promised land -- enhanced stability, advanced networking and security -- until next year.

    BY MIKE LANGBERG
    Mercury News Computing Editor

    ICROSOFT Corp., the semi-benevolent dictator of personal computing, really does listen to complaints from the millions of people around the world who use the company's software.

    And Microsoft even responds -- although often very, very slowly.

    Windows 2000 (www.microsoft.com/windows2000), the new operating system for businesses that officially debuts Thursday, is Microsoft's biggest step forward in five years. Although Windows 2000 isn't meant for home users, I'm going to tell you what's good about this software, and when these improvements will reach the rest of us.

    The single most important trait of W2K, as the program has been dubbed, is stability. It is far less likely to crash or freeze than Windows 98 Second Edition, Microsoft's current operating system for home users. Personal computers running W2K, in other words, are more trustworthy companions than PCs running Windows 98 or its predecessors.

    W2K has a long list of new features that, for now at least, are mostly important to business users, such as tools allowing a network administrator to remotely take care of individual PCs, improved data security and the ability to group processors together to tackle big jobs such as running a major Web site.

    Microsoft is also launching an important new program to create a Windows 2000 ``certified'' logo that will require independent hardware and software manufacturers to submit their products to Microsoft for testing. This testing is aimed at insuring the devices and programs follow the rules for interacting correctly with the operating system -- a cure for the many system crashes and freezes caused by poorly written ``driver'' software that connects hardware and software to Windows.

    These changes sound basic. So why haven't they arrived much sooner?

    Without going too deeply into eye-glazing technical history, the basic problem with Windows 98 is that it's built on a shaky foundation of software called DOS, designed 20 years ago for the first PCs.

    To escape from this legacy, Microsoft created a DOS-free operating system in the early 1990s called Windows NT, short for New Technology. The first versions of NT, in keeping with a long Microsoft tradition, weren't very good. Microsoft finally got it right with Windows NT 4.0, released in 1996. Intended for business users, NT has now become popular in big corporations.

    Windows 2000 could have been called Windows NT 5.0, since it is the newest version in the NT line.

    Consumers, however, won't get to the NT promised land -- enhanced stability, advanced networking and security -- until next year at the earliest.

    Microsoft is planning a Windows 98 upgrade for the second half of this year called Windows Millennium Edition. In a cloying act of marketing cuteness, the company says this new OS will also be known as ``Windows Me.'' Ugh.

    There will be lots of interesting new features in Me, including a variation of the Windows 2000 certification program, and I'm planning to tell you about them when the final software is ready for review.

    But the big change won't come until the arrival of an OS code-named ``Whistler'' that will, essentially, be a home version of Windows 2000. Microsoft won't yet talk about when Whistler might be available, but a good guess is the second half of 2001.

    Whistler will lift home users off the ancient DOS/Windows track and deposit them on the far more modern NT track.

    Don't worry about your old programs, by the way. NT can pretend it is a DOS machine, running DOS programs inside a window, and it similarly supports older Windows software.

    All of which brings us to an obvious question: If Windows 2000 is superior, why not just get it now, instead of waiting for Windows Me and Whistler?

    The answer, to borrow the punch line from an old joke: You can't get there from here.

    Windows 2000 is designed for business, and won't yet work with much of the hardware and software that home users rely on. If you tried to put W2K on a typical home PC -- something I strongly advise against -- you might find that it wouldn't recognize the DVD-ROM drive or the video card that puts images on the screen, or wouldn't be able to connect with your Internet service provider because of compatibility problems with the software that dials the modem.

    W2K is also expensive. Windows 2000 Professional, the version for individual desktop and laptop PCs, costs $219; Windows NT 4.0 users pay $149 for an upgrade.

    Windows 98 Second Edition, in comparison, costs about $89; I don't expect Windows Millennium Edition and Whistler to be significantly more.

    What's more, W2K is hardware-intensive. The minimum requirement is a Pentium-class processor running at 133 megahertz, with 32 megabytes of random-access memory and a hard disk with 500 MB free for the W2K software.

    Of course, the minimum requirements for any new piece of software are a kind of industry joke. The reality is that W2K needs 64 MB of RAM and a processor running two or three times faster than 133 MHz to work effectively. Indeed, Microsoft says W2K will run more slowly than Windows 98 on a PC with 32 MB of RAM.

    Most of these problems should be resolved by the time Whistler arrives. By then, even the least expensive new PCs will have enough hardware horsepower for the NT transition. I'd say most PCs purchased in 1998 or later years should also be ready for Whistler, provided RAM is increased to 64 MB on machines with less than that amount.

    Hardware and software companies, meanwhile, will have created the necessary patches and upgrades to make sure their equipment and programs will work with NT.

    I've just spent several days playing with a NEC Versa laptop running Windows 2000, lent to me by Microsoft. The first thing I noticed was how little there was to notice: The W2K interface is virtually identical to Windows 98, flattening my learning curve to a straight line.

    The second thing I noticed was how I wasn't rebooting. The laptop never crashed or froze, even when individual programs misbehaved and had to be shut down.

    I had no trouble connecting my two home printers -- an HP LaserJet 5MP and an Epson Stylus Photo 700 -- or installing two of my most frequently used pieces of software: Eudora Pro 4.2 for e-mail and Adobe Photoshop LE 5.0 for picture editing.

    But when I tried to install a Microsoft IntelliMouse Explorer, the company's newest mouse that uses laser light instead of a tiny rubber ball to track movement, I discovered the software included in the box wouldn't work with Windows 2000. On Microsoft's Web site, however, I found an updated version that I downloaded for free.

    I then used the ``Make New Connection'' feature to dial into my local Internet service provider for retrieving e-mail and browsing the Web. But I couldn't reach America Online or two leading free ISPs -- NetZero and AltaVista -- because custom-dialing software those companies designed for Windows 98 and Window NT 4.0 won't work with Windows 2000.

    Overall, however, I think we'll all be whistling a happier tune when Whistler arrives. Not that PCs will ever be perfect, or that Microsoft will suddenly start caring as much about helping customers with today's problems as it does about creating the next product we'll be forced to buy. But we can take comfort knowing Microsoft is at least crawling in the right direction.


    Contact Mike Langberg at mike@langberg.com or (408) 920-5084.

       

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