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Move to Windows 98 - or skip to NT?

The pros and cons of taking the plunge.

Many CPAs are asking, "Should I upgrade?"

This article presents the major advantages and disadvantages of an upgrade to the new Windows operating system---and the one other option you have: skipping Windows 98 and going directly to NT. But more about that later.

If you're still running DOS or an early Windows operating system--Windows 3.0 or 3.1--the answer is simple: Do it! You have everything to gain and nothing to lose. But if your computer is equipped with Windows 98's predecessor, Windows 95, the answer is a bit more complicated. Even those who don't know a bit from a byte must address some technical issues before making a decision.

While there are good reasons to upgrade to Windows 98 from Windows 95, there also are some good reasons not to. Your final decision will depend on how you use your computer and what software functions are important to you.

While it's become a cliche (and certainly a truism) that you never should install a brand-new version of any program, that does not fully apply to Windows 98. Although Windows 98 has many new functions, it's really the same old Windows 95 with many enhancements and the old bugs fumigated. That's not to say that new, mutated bugs won't appear, but considering the intense testing Windows 98 has undergone by thousands of beta testers (both computer experts and ordinary users), serious bugs are unlikely. By serious, I mean bugs that will crash your computer; at best, any new bugs likely will be minor irritations--such as when, under very unusual circumstances, a command won't bring up a certain function.

Before you can even consider installing Windows 98, you must first check that your computer has the hardware muscle to handle the new operating system. As a practical matter, you'll need a computer with a Pentium processor and 16 megabytes (Mb) of RAM. Don't believe some claims that you can run it on 8 Mb of RAM; it may run, but very sluggishly. In fact, 32 Mb is better and 64 better still; adding more than 64 is not especially helpful unless the computer is doing special duty, such as working as a network server. You'll also need a CD-ROM drive because Windows 98 comes only on a CD.


Let's look at the benefits an upgrade provides.

Fast, easy setup. Unlike the upgrade process for Windows 95, the move to Windows 98 is relatively fast and painless. I upgraded my computer with a late beta version of Windows 98 in less than 90 minutes. Most of that time I sipped coffee and read as the Windows setup wizard automatically did the job, flashing reassuring messages on the screen that it was progressing smoothly. Except for a few pauses, in which I was asked to answer a question or two about my preferences, the wizard shepherded me safely from start to finish. In addition, the wizard checked my current defaults, and, where possible, copied them into the new Windows 98 setup so all my favorite functions, startup files and desktop screen design were replicated accurately.

Faster, leaner hard disk. Alter you're up and running, Windows 98 gives you the option of converting all your files--applications and data--to a FAT32 format from FAT16. If you make the conversion, and you should, many of your applications will run faster and you'll gain between 20% and 30% of harddisk space.

Why this is so: In the pre-Windows 98 FAT16 format, the minimum hard-disk storage unit (called a cluster) for even the smallest file is 32 kilobytes (Kb). That's true even if the data in the cluster total only 1 Kb, which means 31 Kb of space is wasted: It's comparable to storing a single egg in a 12-egg carton--lots of wasted space. With FAT32, the minimum cluster is only 4 Kb, hence a huge potential saving.

Warning: When you're invited to make the conversion, you're told it will take several hours to complete. That's not necessarily true. Mine (with nearly 2 gigabytes of files) took less than half an hour. Also, if you have even one bad physical sector (a fault on the surface of the disk, which is common on older disks), Windows 98 won't convert the files to FAT32. However, since new, high-capacity hard disks can be bought for a few hundred dollars, it's probably worth swapping your old disk for a new, higher capacity one. As an added bonus, new hard disks are faster and more reliable. Remember, you can never have a hard disk that's too big or too fast.

Contributing to the speed gain is a built-in maintenance program wizard that automatically cleans up harddisk clutter and eliminates duplicate drivers (application files that are similar to worker bees--each has a single, unique work function, such as printing, operating a modem or running a scanner).

Start-up safety. As Windows users know, even a slightly corrupted driver or an unrecognized peripheral (a scanner or a Zip drive) can disable a computer as it boots up. Windows 98, however, has a "special intelligence" which pretty much solves that problem. While a Windows 98 computer with such a glitch may fail to boot up the first time it encounters the problem, the second boot up activates a special Windows agent that instructs the computer to bypass the problem--letting the computer complete its startup and thus giving you the opportunity to replace the pesky component or driver once you're up and running.

For added safety, Windows 98 provides the option of creating a very powerful startup floppy disk, so if a problem is so severe the computer fails to boot up from the hard disk, you can "kick start" it from the floppy. In addition, Windows 98 has hundreds of built-in utilities--all compressed to save space--that can help the crippled computer in a boot-up emergency.

For even more safety, the system contains a program that lets you customize how you back up files. You have the option to perform the backup in one of two ways: To compress data as tightly as possible to save space on the backup media (an operation that's relatively time-consuming), or to compress the files less tightly (a process that works relatively faster). The goal is to give you the option of either saving space or saving time. If you back up to floppies or other limited backup media, space will be your priority. But if you have the space but need encouragement to perform regularly and not be tempted to put off the job, the time-saver option would be a better choice.

Crash protection. Windows 98 isn't immune from crashes, but it is better than Windows 95, which is far more stable than Windows 3.x.

Notebook friendly. Microsoft engineered Windows 98 to be especially friendly on portable computers. Power management programs--utilities that help a laptop conserve battery power--get high priority in the new Windows, users can select the circumstance when a laptop will go into a power-saver mode, drawing less battery power. It also provides improved support for plug-in cards (used as modems and network connections); for example, it shuts them down automatically when the cards aren't in use.

Telephone "intelligent." Finally, Windows 98 has been designed to integrate better with your telephone. While it still has a long way to go before it becomes a "telephone central," it handles automatic dialing (especially the complexity of area code prefixes) with finesse. This is especially good news for those who travel with laptops and have to place calls from many remote locations.

Compression catch. Like Windows 95, Windows 98 has a nifty feature, called DriveSpace, an application that compresses files on either the hard disk or floppy disks by as much as 3:1. What makes the application so handy is that, when you call up a compressed file, it decompresses automatically and "on the fly"--that is, you don't have to take any extra steps. Just the act of opening the file unzips it and it's ready to use. I've used the feature on my laptop, which has a small hard drive, effectively enlarging its data capacity. The only drawback is a slight loss of speed. But if you convert your files to the FAT32 format, the loss of speed is nearly imperceptible.


And now, let's look at the offsets--the disadvantages of conducting an upgrade.

Security. Although Windows 95's security (password protection) is hardly a serious obstacle to even moderately savvy techies, Windows 98 doesn't offer much improvement.

Orphan status. Microsoft says Windows 98 is the last of the Windows line. Although Microsoft clearly will continue to support it for many years to come--after all, it's running on many millions of computers around the world--who would have thought that Windows would become a dinosaur technology so soon?


If Windows 98 is the end of the Windows line and NT is not only here today but also the technology of the future, a perfectly natural question is: Why switch to Windows 98 when NT is available now and works so well?

NT has several major things going for it, but by far the most convincing argument is that NT has several advantages that specifically benefit the accounting profession. Let's take a closer look at NT--which stands for new technology--to see why.

Some background: Windows is an operating system that sprang out of the original DOS and was designed to do double duty: primarily run Windows applications, but also be fully compatible with DOS. That took some technical sleight of hand, which turned out to be a handicap. Its developers had to make some compromises, and it was those programming compromises, in part, that made the early Windows so unstable. As later versions of Windows came out, stability improved, but since DOS compatibility remained a priority, stability continues to be somewhat of an issue.

Unless you're technical, you can't see the traces of the original DOS program (some call it vestiges) imbedded in Windows 95 and 98. The old code is like humans' vestigial tails: a genetic relic that does scant good and may even be the source of some medical problems.

Many CPAs, aware of Windows' historic instability, refuse to use Windows tax or accounting applications. While they concede the new Windows applications are generally more powerful, they fear the lack of stability when dealing with mission-critical projects.

NT, on the other hand, was developed without the DOS handicap. DOS may have been its antecedent, but the programmers were not required to include DOS code to make it compatible. For that reason, some older applications cannot run on NT. But since few people use those applications any more, and far better applications are now available, that's less of a drawback than an inconvenience for a handful of resisters.

Caveat: That lack of universal compatibility can even affect Windows applications. For reasons even Microsoft cannot always adequately explain, some programs developed for Windows--and which run excellently in Windows--will either not run in NT or at least won't run well. Software publishers know this, and while they can write applications that both Windows and NT can run equally well, development cost of such a redundant operating system is an inhibitor. It's like designing an automobile engine to run efficiently on both gasoline and alcohol. Vendors realizes that few, if any, customers would be willing to pay the extra fare such dual development would require.

Many accounting software developers, recognizing that NT is both more stable and secure than Windows, are looking at resetting their priorities for tomorrow's software and making NT the operating system for their furore upgrades.

Clearly, then, the trend is to NT.

So, if you would like to leapfrog Windows 98 and go directly to NT, be sure the applications you plan to use run on NT. For safety's sake, don't just take Microsoft's or the application developer's word for it: Load the operating system and your software and test it exhaustively.

Another NT plus, from the accountants' point of view, is security. Windows security is weak. Even a computer novice can crack it. Not so, NT. It was designed to be secure--so data can be kept safe.

And finally, NT was specifically designed to run in multiple modes: to administer a moderate-size network or to operate as a stand-alone. So it can be run on a laptop, on a lone office computer or as the operating system on the server of a local area network linking many computers--without special, third-party network software.

So, you're faced with a decision: Should you stick with Windows 95, upgrade to Windows 98 or skip 98 and go directly to NT?

If stability and security are of prime importance, the decision seems to lean to NT. But if the lack of compatibility has a higher priority, then staying with Windows 95 or moving to 98 appears wiser.

But what should you do when all three issues--stability, security and compatibility--have equally high priority? You may have to toss a coin.


* IF YOU'RE STILL RUNNING DOS or an early Windows operating system, it makes sense to upgrade to Window 98.

* BUT IF YOUR COMPUTER is equipped with Windows 95, the answer is a bit more complicated and you must address some technical issues before making a decision.

* WHILE THERE ARE SOME good reasons to upgrade from Windows 95, there also are some fairly good reasons not to. Reasons to upgrade:

* Fast, easy setup. Unlike the upgrade process for Windows 95, the move to Windows 98 is relatively fast and the process is automatic.

* Faster, leaner hard disk. After you're up and running Windows 98 gives you the option of converting all your files--applications and data--to a format that will save space on your hard disk and speed applications.

* Crash protection. Windows 98 isn't immune from crashes, but it's better than Windows 95.

* Notebook friendly. Microsoft engineered Windows 98 to be especially friendly on portable computers.

* REASONS TO SKIP Windows 98--and go directly to NT:

* Windows 98 is the last of the Windows line and NT is not only a better operating system but also will be Microsoft's technology of the future.

STANLEY ZAROWIN is a senior editor on the Journal. Mr. Zarown is an employee of the American Institute of CPAs and his views, as expressed in this article, do not necessarily reflect the views of the AICPA. Official positions are determined through certain specific committee procedures, due process and deliberation.
COPYRIGHT 1998 American Institute of CPA's
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1998, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:CPAs
Author:Zarowin, Stanley
Publication:Journal of Accountancy
Date:Jul 1, 1998
Previous Article:Learning for the future.
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