In October 1994, I began working with the M2 release of Windows "Chicago," which went on to become known as Windows 4.0 and, finally, Windows 95. Already a published co-author of a Visual Basic 3.0 book, I was contracted to write a book about Windows 95, and this preview--based on build 224 beta code--appeared in the Spring 1995 issue of BC Link, an internal newsletter for the Benjamin Cummings publishing company. So here it is, my first published words about Windows 95, the OS that would change everything and usher in the era of 32-bit GUI computing for the masses.
If Microsoft has its way, Windows 95 will be the single biggest software release in the history of computing. Touting the upcoming 32-bit operating system as a powerful replacement for MS-DOS, Windows 3.1, and Windows for Workgroups 3.11, Microsoft spokespeople are justifiably excited. Windows 95 is a paradigm shift for the computer industry: for the first time a company with the market penetration of Microsoft has released a world-class graphical operating system. A change for the better is coming, and Windows 95 will be at the forefront.
So what makes this new release of Windows so interesting? And why does it offer educators such an exciting new platform from which to initiate the frightened new user into the world of computing?
Windows 95 offers the ultimate break from the DOS past while retaining a compatibility with DOS programs that was never possible with Windows 3.x. A DOS program can run on the Windows 95 desktop in a window or in full screen mode. Multiple DOS programs can run simultaneously, each in its own fully configurable window. In many ways, Windows 95 is the best thing that ever happened to DOS.
Windows 95 offers far more than just excellent DOS compatibility. A fully redesigned "document-centric" user-interface is easy to use and understand. The conspicuous Start button on the standard task bar begs to he pressed, revealing cascading menus containing shortcuts to programs, recently used documents, configuration options, and help. The task bar has a button for each running program, offering a quick and easy way to switch between these programs.
Gone is the suite of uninspired "manager" programs?Program Manager, File Manager and Print Manager. Windows 95 uses the powerful Explorer utility program, which offers cut-and-paste file copying (borrowing the concept from text-based cut-and-paste) and a graphic look at the contents of your computer.
Any object, be it a document, folder, program or shortcut, can be placed right the desktop. In the Windows 3.1 Program Manager there were groups that could only contain icons programs and files. In Windows 95, folders can hold these items as well as other subfolders. There is even a Recycle Bin, reminiscent of the Macintosh trashcan, used to graphically delete files.
The Windows 95 interface creates a 3D effect where all on-screen elements appear to have depth. Icons are animated. When copying a file, for example, little pieces of paper fly from one folder to another. Applications designed for Windows 3.x will automatically sport the new interface, giving them a fresh and appealing look in the new environment.
One of the more useful aspects of the new interface is that every object in Windows 95--icons, files in Explorer, the taskbar and even the desktop?displays a toolbar of related options when the user clicks on it with the mouse button. These options vary depending on the object that is selected. Right mouse-clicking on a text file, for example, displays a floating toolbar menu with options for copying, moving, creating a shortcut, deleting and renaming the file. This feature, introduced previously in Microsoft Office, is quickly learned and extremely powerful. Not sure what you can do with an on-screen object? Just right mouse-click on it and any action that can be performed on that object will appear on the floating toolbar.
Windows 95 also offers, at last, support for long filenames. The Macintosh and other graphical user interfaces have offered this feature for years, but in their own proprietary file systems, not in the classic DOS file system. Windows 95 allows names like "Letter to Brian about the Ski Trip.doc" and creates an alternate 8.3 name as well in case the file is used on an older DOS machine. This file, for example, will read as "LETTERTO.DOC" in DOS. This backward compatibility ensures that files generated in Windows 95 will run on any PC. Unfortunately, programs created before Windows 95 cannot save files with the longer filenames, although they can open them.
Other enhancements include the Network Neighborhood, where networked computers can access other computers in the network in the same graphical way they access their own hard drives. There is a Briefcase program to facilitate file synchronization between desktop and laptop computers. Built-in accessories include an excellent Personal Information Manager, an enhanced Paint program, and Wordpad, which replaces Write and Notepad. Wordpad is practically a full-featured word processing program, offering a toolbar and file compatibility with Word for Windows 6.0. Multimedia enhancements include advanced media players and support for full-motion video.
The Plug and Play (PnP) feature allows Windows 95 to automatically detect sound cards, CD-ROM drives, modems and other hardware on PnP-equipped systems that are just now being released. Most people, however do not have these systems yet and it may be years before PnP hardware is the standard. Windows 95 also offers excellent support for older computers; any hardware that the system does not automatically detect can be specified by the user.
Coming Soon ... to a Desktop Near You
Microsoft's plan is for Windows 95 to run at least as well on a 4 megabyte 386DX as Windows 3.x does. This is no easy task, as Windows 95 offers many times the functionality and usability of its forebears. Based on a recent beta release, Microsoft's claims are substantiated. Performance in Windows 95 is excellent, even with several programs running at once. Programs accessing a modem no longer slow Windows to a crawl. A program crash no longer brings the entire system down, although DOS and Windows 3.x programs can crash other older (16-bit) programs if they themselves crash. Wordpad and other 32-bit programs run in their own protected memory space, insulated from each other by the system. Even at this early stage, Windows 95 is a stable and feature-rich operating system.
Microsoft has a lot riding on the release of Windows 95, and the ever-lengthening release delays suggest that they are working to make this Windows the best ever. Windows 3.x frequently bewildered new computer users because it was non-intuitive. Windows 95 offers an obvious and accessible interface that will appeal to the power user and computer novice alike. Crossing into the world of computers has always been a big leap for the uninitiated, and interfaces like the DOS command line and Windows 3.x have done little to comfort new users. Windows 95 is that rarest of software releases: a monumental achievement featuring backward compatibility and forward-looking interface enhancements.
Gary Brent and Paul Thurrott are co-authors of the SELECT Series module on Visual Basic 3 .0 for Windows; both are currently working on a forthcoming module on Windows 95.