Windows 98

August 31, 1998

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It is nearly three years since the arrival of Windows 95. And in that time ithas become successfully established on consumer, SOHO (small office, homeoffice) and corporate PCs. Notwithstanding the fact that it is a success becauseMicrosoft deemed that it would be, it is successful because:

  • the user interface is a significant improvement over Windows 3.1
  • it is more stable than its predecessor
  • it offers improved networking and communications facilities
  • last but not least, the developer community has embraced it.

Windows 98 is much less of a quantum leap than Window 95. Arguably, it islittle more than the consolidation of a host of add-ons and upgrades that areavailable as patches and enhancements for Windows 95. However, it is here, andthe question many IT managers will ask is: should we upgrade? To answer thisquestion it is helpful to look not only at what this new operating system (OS)is technically, but also how it fits into Microsoft’s strategic plans.

The New Features

Visual Differences

On the face of it, quite literally, Windows 98 is no different to Windows 95.Anybody familiar with a Windows 95 machine will feel immediately comfortablewith Windows 98. The Start button, taskbar, desktop icons etc are all thereexactly as they were in Windows 95. Navigation is exactly the same, butMicrosoft has included its Active Desktop for those wanting a different way ofworking. By default this is turned-off, but switching it on enables single-clickoperation where, for example, a folder or file can be opened by a single clickof the mouse. The Active Desktop also allows those with a permanent Internetconnection to browse Internet and local content seamlessly. The prevailingopinion seems to be that new users find the Active Desktop easy to learn butthat experienced users find it compromising.

Architectural Differences

There are no major architectural differences between Windows 98 and itspredecessor. It is still essentially a monolithic architecture (unlike its NTsibling that uses a more elegant and robust client-server architecture). To anextent however, weaknesses inherent in the architecture can be ‘refinedaway’. For example, the Porsche 911 motor car has always been identified ashaving an inherent weakness in that the engine is placed on the ‘wrong’ sideof the rear axle, but this car has been refined slowly over time and has becomea superb machine. Windows 95, whilst not an architectural masterpiece (due notleast to the requirement for Windows 3.1 and DOS compatibility), has evolvedinto a fairly solid and dependable OS that meets most user’s needs. Windows 98is more of the same.

The FAT32 Filing System

Since the PCs inception, data has been stored on a hard disk using a filingsystem called FAT16. This is quite wasteful of space, particularly with largehard disks. As the disk becomes larger, the smallest unit of storage, a cluster,grows too. In the case of a 2GB disk this smallest unit of storage is 32KB.Given that an Internet Shortcut placed on the Desktop used only 1KB, it is easyto see how wasteful of space FAT16 had become. Windows 98 introduces the FAT32filing system. This is considerably more efficient than its predecessor. Thesmallest unit of storage on an 8GB drive is now only 4KB. However, FAT32 bringswith it serious compatibility issues:

  • it is not compatible with Windows 95’s DriveSpace disk compression utility
  • most virus scanners will not work
  • disk defragmentation utilities will not work
  • FAT32 is not supported by any other operating system!

If these issues are enough to put you off, don’t worry; Windows 98 doesdefault to a FAT16 installation (at least on the Windows 95 to Windows 98upgrade that I carried out).

Tune-up Start

The new Tune-Up Application Start is designed to shorten the load time ofapplications from the hard disk. It is essentially a modified defragmentationutility that monitors your PC to determine your five most used applications.When this is done, it moves them into a contiguous block on the hard disk. Thismeans that when one of these applications is loaded it needs less disk activity,and therefore less time, to get into memory.

Device Drivers

Device drivers are often the bane of an IT administrator’s life. And Windows98 hasn’t simplified matters! A device driver is a piece of software that‘sits between’ the operating system and the hardware (eg a graphics cardmanufacturer will supply with its card a device driver that allows Windows tocommunicate with it). Incorrect or ‘not quite right’ drivers are quitecommon and cause many problems for administrators. Microsoft has introduced anew device driver model with Windows 98 called the Win32 Driver Model. Therationale being that those device drivers written to this standard can also beused with the forthcoming Windows NT 5.0. Presently, device drivers written forWindows 95 will not work with Windows NT 4.0.

If this all sounds a little confusing don’t worry, Windows 98 still supportsthe existing device driver used in Windows 95. So, in theory, all existingWindows 95 drivers will work with Windows 98. Reports in the press, however, doseem to indicate that some fairly common Windows 95 drivers have proven to beincompatible with Windows 98. The general issue of backward compatibility is anarea in which Microsoft does not have a good track record. If Microsoft is tosucceed in its ‘push’ into the corporate/enterprise sector, it has to payfar greater attention to this issue.

Built-in Support

Probably the most significant difference between Windows 98 and Windows 95 isthe built-in support for much of the new hardware that has arrived over the lastcouple of years. My accompanying Notes for Reviewers booklet includes a fairlylong list, but of these the most significant are:

  • Intel MMX – support for Intel’s multimedia extensions to the instruction set is built into the operating system. This allows certain applications, notably video, to be executed more smoothly.

  • Universal Serial Bus (USB) – the much mooted facility that allows almost any device, be it a monitor, scanner, video camera or bar-code reader, to be connected to the PC via a cable that plugs in to the back of the computer. In my opinion the USB has the potential to change markedly the usability of the PC. It allows up to 127 devices to be connected to the PC via a single cable. Devices can be connected and disconnected at will and connect in a daisy-chain manner. In theory, a newly connected device will be recognised immediately by the operating system and no user configuration will be required. This ‘user-friendliness’ contrasts with the present situation where installation of peripheral devices often requires that the machine be opened and a card inserted into the motherboard. And then, that a device driver be installed. Many PCs have USB connectors already installed and it is expected that USB devices will start to appear next year.

Multiple Monitors

It is possible to have more than one monitor connected to a Windows 98 PC. Ofcourse, Apple Macintosh users will say, quite rightly, that this is a facilitythat they have enjoyed since 1983. However, in the case of Windows 98, once theOS has been installed, additional graphics cards can be slotted into themotherboard and monitors connected to them. Choose ‘Extend my Windowsdesktop’ from the Display Properties dialogue and Windows will allow you tospread your applications across two or more screens. This facility is mostobviously useful to programmers and graphics designers, but in principle anybodyfeeling that his desktop is a little cluttered could benefit.

Integration of IE4

Internet Explorer 4.0, Microsoft’s contentious Web browser, is included withWindows 98 and installed by default. Microsoft claims that the browser is now sotightly coupled to the operating system that it is inseparable. Scrutinyfollowing recent litigation has shown this to be debatable. Notwithstanding thepolitics and legal issues surrounding it, Internet Explorer has in this releasematured into probably the best Windows browser available. What’s more it comeswith a suite of bundled applications – Outlook Express combines mail andnewsgroup clients into one application; Front Page Express is a cut down versionof the web page authoring tool; and Microsoft’s Personal Web Server provides fordelivery of HTML content within a company’s intranet.

Windows 98 as part of MS’s OS Strategy

Microsoft has long recommended that consumers buy Windows 95 and businessesbuy NT. This is more a matter of having two OSs and the need to target them atdifferent markets than there being any inherent technical reason.

Microsoft realises that there is little commercial rationale in developing,supporting and marketing two operating systems that, to the user at least,appear identical and do similar jobs. It is for this reason that Windows 98 willbe the last of the Windows 9’ series. Microsoft intends that everybody willuse Windows NT in the near future.


It is clear that Windows 98 is not a new operating system. And ironically, itis Microsoft’s own operating system ‘road map’ that complements thetechnical view that Windows 98 is simply the consolidation of a host of add-onsand upgrades. Viewed from this perspective, a decision to upgrade should bebased on how many of the new Windows 98 features you have already added toWindows 95 and how much simpler administration would be with a single upgrade(Windows 98).

Alternatively, if you have £60 per machine to spend and feel the need to beas up to date as possible then certainly there is no harm.


David Riggall, Principal Consultant to R & B Associates and independent specialist IT adviser to UK Solicitors based in York gives his view of Windows 98. He may be contacted on 01904 728650.

Well, is it worth spending the money and time on Windows 98, ie to upgrade from previous versions of Windows software? The answer, as always, is: it depends.

If you are still with Windows 3.1 or Windows 3.11 for work groups, it is likely you may be constrained by the capacity and performance of your existing hardware. Windows 98, plus applications software, will typically need at least 32 megabytes of processor memory and preferably 64 megabytes if you wish to run, concurrently, current versions of standard software eg MS, Lotus or Corel suites, or recently developed ‘Legal specific’ systems.

If you are already a Windows 95 user then, subject to the above, 98 is probably a must, not just because it uses disk space more sparingly and loads programs more quickly, but also because it incorporates over 3,000 fixes from Windows 95, which should make operation more reliable and improve the system’s performance in any personal computer!

Finally, for Internet or intranet users, you can use either the Windows 95 desktop or an alternative, the ’98 desktop which responds/looks & feels more familiar to ‘web page’ users. 98 has also been more tightly integrated and made simpler to use for ‘net users, in particular. With regard to the future and for ‘the heat seekers’ of the personal computer world, the Digital Versatile Disk (DVD), which can accommodate up to seven times more than a CD, has now replaced, although thankfully is still compatible with, today’s CDs; 98 supports these new DVDs and drives, as well as other better and newer digital sound and video hardware. If you really want to, you can now run your desktop on up to nine monitors, assuming of course, that is, that you have that many graphics cards and sufficient room for one graphics card per screen in your personal computer.

In conclusion, if you are experiencing problems with Windows 95 or its predecessors, have sufficient hardware and processing power and can afford the time and relatively modest amount of money per PC to keep up to date, it should be well worth doing so!