Windows 95 - A New Ballgame?

The release of Windows 95 was a long-awaited event -- but what are the pros and cons of Microsoft's newest product?

by / December 31, 1995
Windows 95 is a marvelous product. Maybe it's mostly marvelous because Windows 3.1 was so awful. We have just become used to the fact that Win 3.1 crashes. No biggie. Reboot and reload. The casual user always thought it had to be that way. Win 95, running Win 95 applications, is flat out more stable. It unleashes the architecture that has lain dormant in PCs since Compaq introduced the first 386 almost a decade ago, namely 32-bit computing.

For all the good that Win 95 brings, however, it brings a lot of confusion to the table, because Win 95 is one complicated piece of work.

The following features of Win 95 are going to be well-received:

* Win 95 applications that go awry will not lock up the computer, but legacy DOS and Windows applications running under Win 95 can still bring the system down.

* You will be able to run more applications without getting "out of memory" errors. You will be able to multitask Win 95 applications preemptively so that you can truly download a long file while you're working on something else without fear you will lose data in the transmission.

* You will be able to use long file names, but only if you are ready to give up the past (more on that later). Mac and UNIX users have enjoyed long file names for years.

* Win 95 has finally given meaning to the right mouse button. You can right click on almost anything and get a menu of options. For example, if you left click and drag a file from one folder to another, Win 95 decides what it is supposed to do with that function. If it's a data file, it copies it. If it's an executable file, it creates a pointer, or "shortcut" to it. However, if you right click and drag the item, a menu pops up that gives you a choice. By the way, this is one advantage over the Mac, which uses a one-button mouse.

* The built-in plug-and-play is a godsend long overdue. But, plug-and-play still requires up-to-date system BIOSs (the chip on the motherboard) and, to do it right, plug-and-play peripherals, which are just coming on the market.

Win 95 does a much better job of dealing with hardware. At install time, it records the inner workings of your PC. In fact, you can no longer pull the hard disk out of one PC and put it into another. The Win 95 on the hard disk expects to work with a specific PC configuration, so don't play switchies.

Win 95 tries to identify new cards plugged into the PC, but it doesn't do a perfect job of it. It's better if you know the name of your device and instruct Win 95 to install it. Win 95 will use older 16-bit drivers and new 32-bit protected mode drivers, whichever you happen to have.

Let's not mince words here ... Win 95 has copied everything possible from the Macintosh. Now, there is a real desktop. When you turn on the PC the next day, you find your desktop with the same clutter you left on it yesterday. You can create folders and put folders within folders. Just like the Mac, you have a shut down menu, and Win 95 tells you when it's safe to turn the computer off.

And, ah, the 90s -- the Macintosh trash can has become the Win 95 recycle bin. This is so PC -- that is "politically correct." Mac users have known for years how easy it is to retrieve a deleted file. DOS and Windows 3.x users have suffered with all kinds of "undelete" abominations. This is clearly a boon for novices.

The networking options are more complete, and the terminology has been simplified somewhat. A "Network Neighborhood" icon is always on the desktop, and it is reasonably simple to hook up a Win 95 machine to a network, providing you know the name of your network adapter card.

You no longer see Program Manager when you start up, although you can opt to retain it partially in the interim to help your transition. The new Program Manager equivalent is a start button and a taskbar. Pressing "start" displays cascading menus (up to several levels) that take the place of the Program Groups. Instead of arranging Program Groups, you customize the start menu.

Minimizing an active application no longer puts an icon on the desktop, rather it creates a button displaying the icon on a taskbar. Clicking the button on the taskbar restores the application.

The old and much maligned File Manager has given way to a better rendition called the Explorer. Instead of opening multiple windows in File Manager, you launch multiple instances of Explorer in order to copy and move files by dragging and dropping from one folder/directory to another. Again, the right mouse button makes Explorer much more useful than its predecessor.

Microsoft has gone out of its way to provide consistency. Everything looks alike, even the controversial Microsoft Network, which launches a sign-up dialog for the service with a mouse click. It's so similar to everything else that you forget you're online (hmmm ... interesting way to keep the clock ticking). A start menu group looks like a folder which looks like an online session which looks like a ... This sameness means you have to constantly "read" the window titles. It's dull and boring and provides little instant recognition of objects that a graphical interface could take advantage of if it were designed by artists instead of hackers.

Win 95 offers many different ways of doing the same thing. DOS has directories, the Mac has folders. Win 95 has both. You can launch a program from the Start menu, from the "real" desktop, from a folder or from Explorer. In fact, you can set up pointers to the same application from everywhere -- don't move the application, however ... it's not a real Mac! While all these options are great for power users who can't get enough of this stuff, novices are going to find this terribly confusing.

Be careful how you plan your Win 95 training. Figure out which options should be taught and which should be kept under the hood, at least in the beginning.

Win 95 still maintains your existing "AUTOEXEC.BAT" and "CONFIG.SYS" files for compatibility. There is still "WIN.INI" and "SYSTEM.INI" for 3.1 applications, but a lot of their content has been moved to the Registry. The Registry, which used to store OLE and DDE information, now becomes the main store of knowledge about almost everything. There are tons of dialog boxes that let you edit these system settings, which are generally obtainable by right clicking and selecting Properties. You can even edit the binary code in the new version of the Registration Editor ("REGEDIT").

The bottom line is that this is a whole new ballgame -- a mishmash of DOS, Windows and Mac all rolled into one. That it works as well as it does is a miracle. Be thankful. However, until you upgrade to Win 95 applications entirely, you are compounding your tech support problem. Easier to use, harder to support.

Many thought Microsoft was trying to bury its roots and forget that DOS exists. Not true. DOS lives and breathes well inside Win 95. In fact, running DOS sessions under Win 95 is even faster than under 3.1. The Win 95 DOS, which some call DOS 7.0, handles long file names. You reference them with quotes, for example: copy budget.doc a: "Budget for September.doc." If you string everything together, you can eliminate the quotes: copy budget.doca:new.budget.for.sept.1995.doc.

However, if you have Windows 3.1 or DOS users networked to your Win 95 machine, you cannot use long file (excuse me, folder) and directory names without causing enormous confusion.

When you create a long file name, Win 95 creates a DOS-equivalent within the 8.3 naming convention. The long name and the short name are maintained together. For example, our folder name "Computer Glossary" is shortened to "COMPUT~1." The ~ is the Spanish tilde, which is located over the open quote key. Like backslash, the tilde is placed in every location imaginable on keyboards. Worse yet, place that folder onto the desktop and your DOS path is now: "\WINDOWS\DESKTOP\COMPUT~1." It gets very ugly. So if you want to keep your DOS sanity, use long file names sparingly, and be choiceful which files and folders you place on the desktop. Then, you can still reference Win 95 files from legacy machines and legacy applications with names that are meaningful. Isn't that a twist -- you've got to use the 8.3 name to understand it!

Just remember, the better it gets, the worse it gets. So don't ever, ever take it too seriously. Happy Win 95'ing.

Freedman's Electronic Computer Glossary is an award-winning mini-encyclopedia of computer terminology, concepts, products and players with more than 8,000 definitions from micro to mainframe. The fully hypertexted Windows and DOS versions take 2.5MB hard disk space and cost $34.95 from The Computer Language Company, 215/297-8082 (FAX 8424).


Two terms that sound similar are workgroup computing and workflow. Workflow implies workgroup computing (also commonly called groupware), but workgroup computing does not imply workflow.

Workgroup computing/groupware refers to computer systems that enable several people to work together. The simplest example is e-mail. What is often called the father of groupware is Lotus Notes. It allows several people to work on a document across a distributed enterprise. Virtually any application that enables sharing and synchronizing data among multiple users can be called workgroup computing or groupware.

Workflow, on the other hand, deals with the processes that have to be done to complete an operation. Workflow software keeps track of who does what next. When documents have to be reviewed by several people in order, workflow software ensures that the documents flow to the respective users in a timely manner.

The workgroup model is information-centered. The workflow model is process-centered.