User Friendly What Microsoft's Windows 95 Means for You

November 1, 1995
Let's face it. Unless you've been living in the outer reaches of Mongolia during the last year, you've heard of Windows 95. Lately, you've seen the ads cascading across pages in magazines, you've heard the Rolling Stones singing Start Me Up on TV commercials, and you've marveled at Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates' ability to achieve near ubiquity. In August, when Microsoft launched Windows 95, you couldn't open a newspaper without seeing a barrage of articles analyzing virtually every aspect of the new operating system.

Now that the frenzy has settled down a bit, swarms of PC users and companies are quietly migrating to the new computing environment. They're loading the new Windows software onto their hard drives and clicking their mice into previously uncharted territory. In many cases, thanks to an array of new and improved features, they're realizing significant gains in productivity. Others, somewhat less fortunate, have discovered that Windows 95 carries a hefty price tag in terms of the time and resources required to get it running smoothly. Despite the largest beta test in history, a few bugs are inevitable. Regardless of the exact circumstances, one thing is obvious: If you aren't already using it, you probably will be in the next six to 18 months. As Rick Ross, president of the New York City-based consulting firm Iris Development, puts it: "It's not a question of if, it's a question of when."

Make no mistake. Windows 95 is a significant event in the personal computing world. Dataquest, the San Jose, California market-research firm that tracks computer industry trends, estimates that 76 million PCs worldwide will use Windows 95 by the end of 1996. And that has serious ramifications for human resources. Not only must individuals and companies make the decision about when to upgrade to the new operating system and how to best go about doing it, they also must make the physical transition—a process that requires ongoing training and attention. It's estimated that U.S. companies will spend upwards of $80 million for Windows 95 training through 1996, says Chuck Gorman, CEO of J3 Learning, a leading producer of self-paced training materials for Windows 95 in Minneapolis. Hardware and software upgrades to make the operating system run efficiently will likely run into the billions of dollars.

Consider operating on a higher level.
Those who have used Windows 3.1 over the last few years know that it offers capabilities that simply don't exist within DOS. The easy-to-understand graphical interface, as well as the ability to effortlessly exchange data between programs and multitask (run several programs at once) has proven an alluring capability. By the end of 1994, 63% of 200-plus million computers worldwide were running Windows. Yet—partly because it's built on the decade-old DOS platform—Windows 3.1 suffers from severe limitations. It doesn't use the computer's memory efficiently, it's prone to crash, and it's difficult to configure both hardware and software. As if all that isn't enough to cause a psychological lockup, the interface is less than intuitive and the underlying DOS file structure has dictated 8.3-character filenames (eight characters, a dot and three more characters), such as XYZCORP1.DOC. For many, these cryptic filenames have seemed like Egyptian hieroglyphics. Locating the file on an 850-megabyte hard drive a few months later can be like prospecting for pineapples in Persia.

Windows 95 attempts to deal with many of these problems and limitations. Because it no longer depends on the conventional DOS structure and is a true 32-bit multitasking, multithreaded environment, it can easily run a substantial number of programs at the same time (including DOS applications). It doesn't crash often—particularly if you're using 32-bit applications written specifically for it. It allows the use of long filenames, such as XYZ Corporation sales for December 1995; and it incorporates Plug and Play, which greatly simplifies the process of adding new hardware—particularly modems, printers and CD-ROM drives.

Glance at the new interface and you can see the changes. The most obvious—and most hyped—has been the Start button, which brings up all folders and programs available for launch with a simple click of the mouse. A taskbar at the bottom makes it easy to switch between active programs. Clicking the right mouse button calls up dozens of commands and actions that used to be hidden under layers of menus. Shortcuts allow a way to create an object—whether it's a physical device such as a printer or a disk drive or a document—on the desktop. Once there, it's possible to drag files from the Explorer (the replacement for File Manager) to the object and have it process the desired action.

Windows 95 offers an array of other new features. Exchange, a powerful universal mailbox, can manage E-mail, faxes and other documents across multiple services and networks. Multimedia capabilities—including video and sound—are much more tightly integrated. Windows 95 offers an easy way to set up a TCP/IP connection required for the Internet. A few simple steps and you're browsing the World Wide Web or checking out a Use-net group. By connecting directly through the operating system, many of the conflicts of the past have been eliminated, including confusion over communication ports. There's Dial-Up Networking, which allows mobile users to easily connect to the corporate computer from the road and upload files or browse a data base. And there's Briefcase, which provides an easy way to transfer files between a Windows 95 desktop system and a notebook computer. By simply dragging files into the briefcase and then copying the entire briefcase, it's simple to keep track of files and transfer them.

The operating system supports a wide array of networking protocols. Besides TCP/IP, it handles Novell Netware 3.x and 4.x, IPX/SPX, Microsoft DLC and NetBEUI. "It's extremely easy to connect computers and network them without a lot of elaborate hardware and software," says Steven Buck, president of OnPoint Technology, a software-development company in Aurora, Colorado. "There are a lot of advantages, particularly for individual departments or small companies. It's a lot less expensive and a lot less complicated than adding a stand-alone server with its own software. Windows 95 makes networking accessible to a whole new group of users." Adds Ross: "It's an excellent product to have in the corporate networking toolkit." And while it doesn't have the same level of built-in network security as its big brother, Windows NT, it offers a good deal more security than previous versions of Windows.

You pay for the power.
All these improvements come at a steep price, however. Windows 95 demands a more powerful computer—a 486 or Pentium system—to run well. Although it uses memory more efficiently than Windows 3.1, it also demands more of it. Anything less than 8 megabytes using 32-bit applications is likely to slow a system to a crawl. Sixteen megabytes or more is ideal. And because it's a much larger program and the software that runs on it devours disk space, anything less than a 500-megabyte hard drive is likely to resemble an overstuffed closet. "The baseline has clearly moved up," says Chris Le Totq, principle analyst at SoftTracks, a Los Altos, California software research company. "The requirements are much greater than under Windows 3.1 or Windows for Workgroups."

To be sure, the cost of upgrading is a major factor. The $90 or so you spend for a copy of Windows 95 is just the beginning. Many older systems require $1,000 or more for RAM and hard disk upgrades. The alternative, a new Pentium computer, can run $1,500 to $3,500 per unit, depending on the power of the system and the features it offers. According to industry estimates, only about 39% of current PCs are equipped to run Windows 95. Heap on top of all this the expense of additional 32-bit applications to replace old 16-bit programs, and the cost of moving into the future of computing can become quite intimidating.

And that has serious ramifications. In the corporate world, where cost and risk dictate action, the move to Windows 95 is likely to take place much more slowly than in the consumer market. One industry forecast goes so far as to say that only 4% of companies with 1,000 or more employees will move to Windows 95 by the end of 1995. "At this point, most companies have what they need running on Windows 3.1, people know how to use it, so it's often difficult to justify an immediate move to Windows 95," explains Buck. Adds Le Totq: "From a corporate perspective, Windows 95 is an expensive proposition. Immediately upgrading all the hardware to make an entire enterprise Windows 95-compatible isn't feasible." There's also the potential for disruption, support costs and a general lack of productivity due to periodic technical problems. Moreover, many analysts believe that risk-adverse IS managers won't be turning old 386 systems into doorstops anytime soon.

Other factors also enter into the decision of whether to upgrade immediately or wait. If a killer application comes along that's written for Windows 95, then it might make sense to take the leap sooner rather than later. "At a certain point, says Le Totq, "all Windows users are going to get pushed into Windows 95. Software developers already are focusing their attention away from Windows 3.1 and toward 95. If the only reason to upgrade is to use 32-bit versions of Word or Excel, it's probably not as compelling a reason as adopting a new program that allows you to do something you couldn't do before."

One of the problems that analysts see emerging within the corporate environment is a conflict between Windows 95 zealots and Windows 3.1 die-hards. Le Totq believes Windows 95 users are likely to pressure their Information Systems people to adopt the new operating system and they're likely to encounter some resistance. "There are organizations in which IS has taken a heavy-handed approach and stated they won't install Windows 95 anytime soon," he says. "Unfortunately, that's counterproductive. It has to be viewed on a case-by-case basis." He believes it's important to weigh the costs before jumping onto the digital bandwagon.

Get up to 32-bit speed.
Despite a streamlined interface and greater usability, don't expect training to take a backseat with Windows 95. According to a study conducted by the META Group, a marketing research firm in Stamford, Connecticut, 61% of corporate Windows 95 beta users estimate that workers will need at least a day to learn how to navigate the new interface. It's a significant cost, and one that can't be overlooked. Poorly trained workers aren't only underproductive, they're likely to spend considerable time and money receiving technical support. Deena Flammang, vice president of marketing for J3 Learning, believes it's crucial for HR to put together some kind of strategic plan from the beginning. "The organization must address where it's at and where it wants to be," she explains. "Is it a matter of upgrading skills from Windows 3.1? Are users moving to a GUI (graphical user interface) for the first time? Is there a particular type of learning that works best?" In some cases, that might translate into interactive multimedia training, computer-based training and reference guides. In other instances, full-day workshops might be necessary.

Nevertheless, Windows 95 promises to change the face of computing and human resources. Many of the networking and data-exchange features built into the operating system will make it easier for departments and individuals to share data and swap files. "You don't have to be a rocket scientist to use it," says Ross. "IS and HRIS now have tremendous remote access ability. They can create a standard build for all machines on a network and can distribute software and files to all PCs with a minimum of effort. They can easily control the system and keep users from modifying the setup." At the other end of the spectrum, Windows 95 also allows end users to operate a PC with less technical knowledge than ever before. Although Le Totq doesn't see Windows 95 as a revolution in the way people compute, he does see it as part of the evolution toward a more stable and usable environment.

As sure as Bill Gates will find his way onto another TV program or into another magazine article, Windows 95 will become the mainstream operating system. Although the Macintosh has long provided the ease and flexibility that Windows 95 is just now beginning to achieve, and IBM's OS/2 has offered many of the same 32-bit features on the PC platform for the last couple of years, both have sunken into corporate oblivion. Windows NT, Microsoft's more powerful 32-bit operating system, has proven expensive and requires a tremendous investment in hardware. As a result, most companies have shied away. Says Ross: "Microsoft has already won the hearts and the confidence of a vast user base with Windows 3.1. Windows 95 is a far superior product. Like it or not, it's here to stay."

Personnel Journal, November 1995, Vol. 74, No. 11, pp. 95-97.