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March 1996 Opinion Columns

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A Sneak Peek At Windows 96/Nashville?

We got our hands on some interesting software.
Here's the completely unauthorized scoop.

by: Fred Langa, Editorial Director

A FEW WEEKS ago, someone posted what was supposedly a beta copy of "Nashville" (the follow-on release to Windows 95) in a Usenet discussion group frequented by crackers and software pirates. Almost immediately, it spread to other semi-savory BBSes and outlets on the fringes of cyberspace.

Then some enterprising soul uploaded a copy of Nashville to a WinMag site -- virtually dropping it into our lap. We never signed a Nashville nondisclosure agreement -- there's no official public beta yet -- and we couldn't just pretend the code didn't exist. We called the folks at Microsoft to give them a chance to bring Nashville into the daylight, but they denied such a beta even existed. So what the heck was it?At first, we thought it may have been phony -- perhaps a Trojan Horse designed to sabatoge our systems -- but some digging convinced us it deserved a closer look. I backed up my hard drive, took a deep breath and installed the mystery software.

The new build is slightly schizoid: It variously describes itself as "Windows 96" (in the Control Panel's Add/Remove Software area), as "Nashville" (in command-line windows) and as "Windows 95" (in splash screens and generic dialogs). The build is also very rough in spots. It doesn't uninstall properly, and several pieces appear to be hard-wired to test code on remote drives that don't exist outside whatever environment it came from. The missing hard-coded remote pieces lead to some pretty interesting crashes.

Yet even in this primitive stage, the software offers several improvements over the current Windows 95. My guess is it's the experimental version of Windows that Microsoft recently distributed to hardware developers to help them keep their next rounds of system hardware compatible with the next version of Windows.

All this means you need lots of salt grains when you look at this OS. Some, all or none of what you see may end up in the final "Win96," if in fact there is a Win96.

Judging by the file creation dates, almost all the core code and basic drivers have at least been recompiled. I assume one would do that only with good reason. One "good reason" is speed, and indeed video is about 15 percent faster on my S3-based system than it is under Win95. It looks as though someone has done some meaningful tweaking under the hood, and that bodes well for whatever the final product will be.Several of the add-ins for Win95 (some of the PowerToys and the Internet Explorer Wizard, for example) are now built into the base OS. Network managers will rejoice because NetWare Directory Service support is also built in, although in very rough form. Some of the default settings are funky as well; for example, you get some unnecessary and misleading dialogs when you log on using Remote Network Access. Clearly, this is a work in progress.

Cosmetically, Explorer now sports Go Back and Go Forward buttons, just like a Web browser, and you can move from directory to directory the same way you navigate from page to page on the Web. Combine shortcuts and the ability to map distant directories to your local file structure, and you can navigate more easily than ever, almost without concern for where anything is physically located. Traditionalists, take note: You can still navigate by walking the directory tree in classic fashion.

The Web-like behavior goes further: A Web browser shows clickable links in color, with an underline. In this build of Windows, clickable items on your screen turn "Click Me!" blue and gain an underline when you drag your mouse cursor over them.

In a related vein, you can turn on one-click access to your files, applications and directories (also like a Web browser). No longer will you have to know when to single-click and when to double-click -- a single click can do it all.

There's lots more desktop animation in this build. Windows now explode out of desktop icons; if you right-click on a desktop icon, the menu grows out of the icon instead of suddenly popping into existence. The Start menu and other cascading menus now roll up, down or out instead of just popping into place. New users will love this because they can see exactly where every menu and window comes from or goes to. You just can't get lost or end up saying "Where did that come from?" or "Where did it go?"

Even Explorer has internal animations. Click on a folder in the left pane, and lines explode out from the folder icon over to the right pane, which then normally displays the folder's contents. Again, it's brain-dead obvious what the right pane is showing. If you prefer the instant-pop-in-place speed of the Win95-style menus, the OS mercifully allows you to turn off the animations and windows.

One major new item in this build is Athena, a PIM that features a contact manager, "white pages" listings from your e-mail post office, a calendar with to-do and task lists, and a lightweight mail client. It can replace MS Mail, Schedule+ and several other small apps, and could be especially useful for standalone or laptop users. But the calendar doesn't handle group scheduling -- at least not yet.

So what does it all add up to? Despite Microsoft's protests to the contrary, I think the software is a for-real interim prototype of the next version of desktop Windows. In fact, it may be one of several prototypes floating around the Net. Other testers have been able to access features I can't in my version, and vice versa. Not all the features will make it to the final build, but I'll bet some or most of them will.

Bill Gates has said there will be no "major upgrade" to Windows in 1996, which leads me to believe the things I've seen in this build will appear in an incremental release -- sort of a Windows 95.1 -- later this year. I bet it will be called Win96.

But because it's still basically Win95 with extra bells and whistles, it's not a major upgrade and most people won't need it -- especially those who loaded the Win95 patches and add-ons available through http://www.microsoft.com. On the other hand, the new features, coupled with the performance increases hinted at in this prototype, may make the new version well worthwhile for power users.

I'll post some screenshots of the new software at
http://www.winmag.com/flanga/win96.htm.
After you've taken a look, click over to http://techweb.cmp.com/gurus/langa/langa.htm to join a free Web-based chat on Win96, or drop me a line and tell me what you think.

Fred Langa is Editorial Director of CMP's Personal Computing Group. Contact Fred via his home page at http://www.winmag.com/flanga/hotspots.htm, in the WINDOWS Magazine areas on America Online and CompuServe. To find his E-Mail ID Click Here

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The Explorer

We're Building a Better WINDOWS Magazine

Why change a good thing? Because the world isn't standing still.

by: Mike Elgan, Editor

We've been accelerating our normal rate of evolution lately. I thought I'd use this space to tell you where we've been, where we are and where we're going.

Some of the changes we're making are cosmetic, designed to make the magazine more appealing and readable. For example, you've probably noticed a fresh look for this page and the other analysis columns, our new Reviews section and the table of contents. Creative Director Skip Johnston and his crew have done some great work on the design of WINDOWS Magazine, and they have plenty more good things in store for us this year.

Most of the changes that we've made -- and will continue to make in the near future -- are refinements in the way we gather and deliver information to you. Here's a recap of what we've done and why.

New Reviews section

Last month, we introduced an improvement in the way we report our hands-on testing of Windows hardware and software products. During WINDOWS Magazine's first four years (February 1992 to January 1996), we presented our product reviews in two separate sections: First Impressions and Product Comparisons. First Impressions were standalone evaluations of brand-new or "beta" products. Product Comparisons were roundup group reviews of comparable products that were pitted against one another in head-to-head evaluations. We recommended one or more of the best performers based on our tests and experiences with the products.

When we first introduced WINDOWS Magazine, this approach made sense. But times have changed, and so have we. Product cycles are shorter now. And the number of new products available for Windows has become astronomically high. The problem with roundup reviews is that some of the products in them aren't necessarily new -- sometimes, they're several months or possibly even a year old. But we included the older products along with the new so we could give you our recommendation in that category, regardless of the ship dates of the products.

Starting with our February issue, we've taken the best qualities of both sections and combined them into one mega-section simply called Reviews. Every product in our new Reviews section is brand-spanking new. And some are beta or preproduction units (which are clearly identified as such), so you get the earliest possible review of each package. We'll continue to do roundups of several new products in the same category only when the shipments of those products happen at about the same time, so the products are still new to the market.

So how do readers know which products we recommend? Glad you asked.

In the February issue we rolled out our huge, comprehensive Recommended list -- our current recommendations in every category of Windows hardware and software. Last month we started with our Systems category, this month we're adding a Software section, and next month we'll complete the list with a Hardware category including notebook PCs and peripherals. From April on, each month we'll feature a listing of recommended products in every major category. And we'll make sure it reflects the latest announcements: We'll update this list -- adding new recommended products and dropping those we no longer endorse -- every month.

Our goal is to make your purchase decision simple: Whenever you buy computer gear, just pick up the latest copy of WINDOWS Magazine and turn to our Recommended list for our current picks. We'll tell you where to look for a particular product review, so you can turn to that issue (either in your own library or in our online archives) and get the nitty-gritty details.

We've recently introduced other changes to our hands-on review reporting as well. In January, we started listing which platforms (Windows 3.x, Windows 95 and Windows NT) each software product runs on to prevent any confusion as to whether a specific product is right for you.

In February, we also launched our WinMag Box Score method of reporting test results and evaluations of usability, documentation and other subjective attributes. Here, we boil down all the numbers to produce a score you can digest at a glance. It's essentially a five-star system similar to the kind restaurant reviewers use, but instead of stars we use WinMag logos. Also in our last issue, we added a short list of pros and cons on each write-up to help you identify products that are right -- or wrong -- for the kind of work you do.

The credit for developing and implementing our new Reviews section goes to Senior Technical Editor David W. Methvin, Senior Reviews Editors Richard Castagna and David Gabel, and Reviews Editors Jonathan Blackwood (Hardware), Janice J. Chen (Systems) and Cynthia Morgan (Software).

New Enterprise Windows section

In our February issue, we introduced an all-new Enterprise Windows section, spearheaded by Editor-At-Large John D. Ruley. This bimonthly supplement is targeted at IS professionals, network administrators, ultra-high-end NT users and Webmasters. It provides detailed information about networking Windows clients in a heterogeneous environment, as well as workstation-level NT hardware and software.

Enterprise Windows is essentially a magazine within a magazine, providing news, analysis, reviews and features on extremely high-end Windows issues. You saw our first installment of Enterprise Windows last month; you'll see our second installment in next month's issue, and future editions are already in the works. Let us know how you like our new section and what else you'd like to see in it.

More and better online content

In addition to these improvements in the magazine, we're also expanding and improving our online offerings. Our new Online Editor, Tom Ponzo, and Webmaster Paul Silverman will be implementing redesigns and additions to our online areas on America Online (Keyword: WinMag) and CompuServe (GO: WINMAG), as well as our WinMagWeb site (http://www.winmag.com). We'll also be setting up shop on Prodigy and the Microsoft Network soon.

When we create supporting content and put it online, we'll point to it from the magazine. Look for pointers in WINDOWS Magazine to online content you can't find anywhere else: breaking news, features and columns written by WinMag editors exclusively for electronic publishing, plus additional material we just couldn't fit into the paper magazine.

On our online-service areas, you can chat with WinMag editors and submit letters for consideration for our Letters page in the magazine.

Look for brand-new sites on WinMagWeb, such as John Ruley's Windows NT page (http://www.winmag.com: 80/people/jruley/), Martin Heller's Programming Windows page (http://www.winmag.com/people/mheller/), Fred Langa's exposť on Windows 96 (http://www.winmag.com: 80/flanga/win96.htm) and much, much more.

From all our sites you can download great freeware, like our own Wintune test and tune-up utility, the recommended shareware we mention in the magazine and other great Windows shareware. We post current and back issues of WINDOWS Magazine online, so you can browse through a library of Windows content without stirring from your keyboard.

So Windows Magazine has tons of online content, new Reviews and Enterprise sections -- and striking good looks, too. What more could you ask for? Drop me a line and let me know.

Contact Editor Mike Elgan via e-mail at melgan@cmp.com, in the "Explorer" topic of the WINDOWS Magazine areas on America Online and CompuServe.

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ReadMe File

All the news that's fit to print out

Maybe that should be Microsoft's new slogan in light of its
partnership with NBC announced at the end of last year.

by: Fred Davis

Whether this deal will culminate in anything historic or just become history remains to be seen, given the many highfalutin deals that have collapsed recently. One thing's for sure: The partnership is ambitious.

For starters, Microsoft has agreed to spend over a third of a billion dollars over the next 5 years for a 50 percent interest in this megadeal with NBC to be dubbed MSNBC. The aggressive goal of MSNBC includes going up against Ted Turner's CNN with the MSNBC 24-hour cable news channel -- $220 million of Microsoft's money is pouring into NBC's coffer to fund half this venture. Microsoft and NBC are each kicking in over $100 million to finance the online portion of MSNBC, to be delivered on the Internet via the Microsoft Network.

The megadeal's most straightforward part is the creation of the MSNBC cable TV news network. This is merely a clone of Turner's CNN concept, except that it will use NBC's existing TV network and affiliate news capabilities, so it will be populated by the likes of Tom Brokaw, Jane Pauley and the rest of the NBC all-star team.

NBC News will manage the MSNBC cable TV channel, while the online service will be comanaged by NBC and Microsoft. The combination of a news-gathering agency and a major sponsor such as Microsoft is an unprecedented move in the news world that has raised some red flags over editorial integrity. The partners have agreed that NBC News will have complete editorial control over the news content of both the cable and the online services.

As part of the deal, NBC will kill its America's Talking cable network, replacing it with the new MSNBC channel. This substitution will yield an initial base of 20 million cable TV subscribers across the country. The cable TV service is scheduled to start by June -- that is, June in Microsoft time, which could mean just about anytime.

The initial interactive offering will be called MSNBC Online, and it will be tightly integrated with and heavily promoted on the MSNBC cable TV channel. Microsoft plans to use MSNBC as part of its strategy to salvage the Microsoft Network (MSN) by converting it from a private, online service to an advertiser-supported public Internet site.

You've got to give Microsoft credit for acting quickly to recuperate from the disaster. Only 3 months after launching MSN, Microsoft did an about-face, switching its primary focus from being a paid online service to becoming a free Internet service. And just as quickly the company went on trying to provide MSN with some compelling content through the creation of MSNBC. In a related content move, Microsoft also announced it had raided CNN and hired Michael Kinsley, cohost of "Crossfire," one of CNN's top-rated shows. Kinsley is moving to the Microsoft campus in Redmond, where he will be a key editorial player in the reshaping of MSN.

Over the next few years, Microsoft and NBC plan to merge the cable TV and online products into an MSNBC version for interactive television. The upcoming generation of cable TV modems will allow viewers to surf the Internet on their TV sets, thus accessing online information as well as news on demand. Microsoft also plans to develop custom newspapers and news programming for delivery on the interactive TV platform.

The Microsoft/NBC combination is potentially potent. If both companies like the fit on the news front, rumors are rampant that a deeper relationship could, perhaps, culminate in Microsoft's acquiring or merging with NBC. On the surface, these deals seem savvy and synergistic, because they offer the potential to extract the best from both companies to provide something new and exciting for customers.

But this partnership is also rife with pitfalls. Microsoft's commercial influence could have an unsavory effect on the public's perception of NBC's objectivity. Even if everything were aboveboard, just the suspicion of Microsoft's sway on the news could turn off viewers. Unfortunately, NBC had a rash of ethics problems in its news department related to the "Dateline" show, which is epitomized by the now-infamous incident in which "Dateline" staged the explosion of a reportedly unsafe vehicle. The MSNBC venture will need to hold itself to the highest journalistic standards to withstand the heightened scrutiny that this deal has already aroused.

Chief Analyst Fred Davis is the author of The Windows 95 Bible (Peachpit Press). Contact Fred in the "ReadMe File" topic of WINDOWS Magazine's areas on America Online and CompuServe. To find his E-Mail ID Click Here

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Windows at Work

Trying to create the paperless office? Good luck

Breaking the paper habit means rethinking the way you work.

by: Cheryl Currid

American business cranks out about 90 billion documents a year. These documents are photocopied an average of 11 times to generate about one trillion copies. If you built a stack of all this paper, it would soar more than 189,000 miles into space.

What can you do to whittle the stack down to size? Controlling rampant photocopying is a good start. Some companies are even thinking about going cold turkey by evicting their photocopy machines.

My office is taking a less aggressive tack. We're eliminating paper-based filekeeping and indiscriminate copying of documents for anyone and everyone. We've installed an HP ScanJet 4Si scanner, an HP LaserJet 5Si printer and Visioneer's PaperPort software. Together, they electronically capture, store, e-mail, fax, print, edit and annotate documents. We're also using software that enables electronic filing of documents and sharing of information. As a result, we're using our copier a whole lot less. That's not only saving trees, it's saving us time and money as well.

It's faster and cheaper to print multiple sets of a document on a network laser printer than it is to print the document once and make duplicates on a copy machine. Say you compose and print a seven-page monthly status report for five managers. One way to do it is to print one set and photocopy four more. You then have to walk the document over to your copy machine, wait for the copier to reproduce four sets, staple them and walk back to your office. Total time: up to 10 minutes. A better way is to print multiple copies directly to your network printer. Total time: around 2 minutes, even less if you have a printer in your office. And you can spend much of that time doing something productive.

A reduction in paper shuffling often means an increase in productivity. It's more efficient to scan documents and share electronic copies with project team members via e-mail or fax. You can use PaperPort software to store the electronic version in a project folder. Add a package like Lotus Notes, which offers a link to PaperPort, and you can distribute the document directly to your workgroup, so there's no chance of someone (like me) losing a copy.

Need to edit or annotate a hard copy? PaperPort lets you drag and drop an electronic document directly to your word processing software. It automatically converts the electronic image to text so you don't have to rekey or finagle with OCR software.

Here's the bottom line: It's no longer cheaper to make extra copies on a copier. Per-page copy costs run between 8 and 15 cents including copy machine rental, paper, toner and supplies. But when you buy the HP ScanJet 4Si scanner, you get a 20-seat license for PaperPort bundled with the deal. That, coupled with HP's speedy 24-page-per-minute LaserJet 5Si printer, gives you what you need to perform most common office copy tasks. My firm's research estimates the cost per page for this combination scanner-printer-software setup at about 11 cents.

Add people, time and frustration into the equation and you tip the scales farther in favor of the new approach to paper management. The typical copier breaks down once a month depending on copy volume, according to a recent office products survey. And copier service fees aren't cheap: Dataquest says businesses spend $6.7 billion a year servicing photocopiers.

Printer technology is more stable. At a breakdown rate of less than once per year, printer repair technicians are as lonely as the Maytag repairman.

This could change once we start using our printers as copy machines. But I doubt printers will suffer monthly breakdowns.

There's no way you can go wrong with the scanner-printer-software solution; it's poised to blow away office copiers and transport users closer to the nirvana of a paperless office. To coin a new phrase, technology replaces itself. Remember dedicated word processing machines? Selectric typewriters? These devices are almost as obsolete as the buggy whip. It's not likely we'll ever do away with paper entirely, but there's no reason we can't take advantage of technology to use it as prudently as possible.

WinMag Analyst Cheryl Currid is president of Houston-based Currid & Company, a research and consulting firm. Contact Cheryl in the "Windows At Work" topic of WINDOWS Magazine's areas on America Online and CompuServe. To find her E-Mail ID Click Here

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Dialog Box

Are we living in the age of bad ideas?

Printers without power switches; PCs without hard drives.
What will they think of next?

by: Robert Lauriston

Once upon a time, the computer industry generated an endless stream of great ideas: laser printers, scalable fonts, standard SIMMs, CPU upgrade sockets, application suites. Maybe I'm jaded, but in recent years it seems that trend has taken a nosedive. The stream continues, but with an ever-increasing share of bad ideas. Seriously bad. Here are some examples:

No power switch.
Company thinks: Our Energy Star printer turns itself off, so why not shave a few bucks off the price by ditching the on/off switch? Well, guys, it is a nice machine, and I appreciate the extra $2.59 in my pocket, but once or twice a week some bug in my driver or firm-ware hangs the printer so badly it needs a hard reset. Without a power switch, I have to crawl under my desk and rummage through the dusty tangle of cords and cables to pull the plug. Ah-choo!

Win95's AutoPlay. This sounded like a great idea on paper: Pop a CD in your drive, and it starts automatically. And perhaps it will be a great idea, once the developers figure out what not to put in the autorun.inf file. Take music. That New-Agey Win95 theme song gave me the creeps the first time I heard it, and it gets more annoying with every replay. Then there's the disc that runs setup.exe every time you insert it. Hey, Win95 Shell team, how about an exceptions file in the next release, so we can disable AutoPlay for selected discs?

Low-slung floppy drives.
Small-footprint PC cases make sense. They free up desk space and fit in smaller areas. But low-rise cases? Does freeing airspace over your monitor justify having to pull your keyboard halfway off the desk to get at your floppy drive? I've even seen full-size desktops with floppies at ground level.

"Portable" document formats.
Utilities such as Common Ground, Envoy and Adobe Acrobat all make similar promises: They'll create a single document you can view on any monitor or print on any printer, recreating the original layout with whatever's available. Post the document on the Web, upload it to an online service, put it on a CD-ROM, print it out -- whatever you want -- all without reformatting or revising the layout. Pretty slick, huh?

If only. Take this page, for instance. Turning the Quark original into a portable document is as easy as printing it. But what happens when I try to read it on screen? For maximum legibility, WINDOWS Magazine's designers chose a fairly small serif font and broke the text into columns. To make the text legible on my monitor (at my usual 1024x768 resolution), I need to zoom to 200 percent. Thanks to the columns, I need to keep scrolling up and down, right and left, fumbling around looking for continuations. This is hard to take at 1024x768; at 640x480 it's exasperating.

Acrobat and its imitators are great for distributing documents that you output on various printers using available fonts, but that's it. If you want a portable document format for on-screen reading, use HTML.

Microsoft's new Win95 keys.
Like we were using all 101 keys we already had? Microsoft could just as easily have redefined some of the existing keys. Of course, that wouldn't have gotten the Windows logo on all those third-party keyboards -- a good idea for Microsoft shareholders.

Multimedia encyclopedias.
For 5 years, multimedia hardware vendors have claimed they're giving you two for the price of one. When you buy a multimedia PC or upgrade kit, you're not just getting a CD-ROM drive and sound card. The bundled disc gives you an encyclopedia that would cost hundreds of dollars and take up a whole bookshelf if you purchased the book version.

Let's not exaggerate. The "Shakespeare, William" entry in a real encyclopedia runs at least a dozen paragraphs; in the typical multimedia CD, the Bard's lucky to get four.

Two products, one name.
Recently, I had a problem with DriveSpace 3, so I logged onto CompuServe and used WinCIM's Service/Find command to search for Microsoft Plus. One MS forum turned up on the list, but when I tried to get into it I got a message asking for the serial number from the CompuServe brochure included with MS Plus. Brochure? What brochure? I called Microsoft (on my dime, of course) and was told that forum was for Microsoft Plus, the extra-cost tech support program, not Microsoft Plus, the Win95 add-on. I've had similar confusing episodes with MS Exchange (the Win95 applet? the server application?). What were they thinking? Were they thinking?

The Network PC.
My award for Worst Idea of 1995 goes to Oracle CEO Larry Ellison. He recently proclaimed PCs "ridiculous devices." Most people, he said, use them only for word processing, Internet access, e-mail and videoconferencing. (He really said that.) A better alternative would be the company's forthcoming $500 "network computer," a diskless workstation with a cheap RISC CPU and proprietary Oracle operating system. Plug one into a phone jack or ISDN connection, and it automatically logs onto an Internet server, downloads the OS and accesses applications as needed -- the ultimate in Plug and Play.

What's wrong with this picture? Ellison's $500 reflects an unusable configuration. Add monitor, keyboard and mouse, and the cost is only 15 to 20 percent less than a low-end PC. In exchange for this modest savings, you'd give up the PC's huge software smorgasbord, trade hard-drive performance for sluggish modem or ISDN speeds, become dependent on the company that owns the server and pay a monthly bill for the privilege.

This may well be the worst idea the computer industry has ever come up with, but I'm sure it won't be the last.

Contributing Editor Robert Lauriston is coauthor of The PC Bible (Peachpit, 2nd ed., 1995) winner of the 1994 Computer Press Award for Best Introductory How-To Book: Systems. Contact Robert in the Dialog Box topic of the WINDOWS Magazine areas on America Online and CompuServe. Click Here to find the e-mail IDs for our editors, who can put you in touch with this author.

Here's a good idea: If you have an opinion (or a gripe) about Windows computing you'd like to share, send it to Nancy A. Lang. To find her E-Mail ID Click Here

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