Tag Archives: Windows 95

Quaintness in Salt Lake

(This is the script for a piece I did for the BBC World Service. Posted here by request. Podcast here.)

Something rather quaint is going on in a Salt Lake City courtroom. A company called Novell, who you’d be forgiven for not having heard of, is suing Microsoft over a product called WordPerfect, which you also may not have heard of, which it says was hobbled from running on something called Windows 95 to protect its own product, called Microsoft Word.

To be honest, you don’t need to know the ins and outs of this Microsoft law suit; nor do you really need to know much about Novell—once a giant in word processing software, and now a subsidiary of a company called The Attachmate Group, which I had never even heard of. Or, for that matter Windows 95—except that once upon a time people used to stay up all night to buy copies. Sound familiar, iPad and iPhone lovers?

It’s weird this case is going on, and I won’t bore you with why. But it’s a useful starting point to look at how the landscape has changed in some ways, and in others not at all. Microsoft is still big, of course, but no-one queues up for their offerings anymore: Indeed nobody even bought Vista, as far as I can work out. But back then, nearly every computer you would ever use ran Windows and you would use Microsoft Office to do your stuff. You couldn’t leave because you probably didn’t have a modem and the Internet was a place where weird hackers lived.

Now, consider this landscape: Apple make most of their money from phones and tablets. Google, which wasn’t around when Windows 95 was, now dominate search, but also own a phone manufacturer, have built an operating system. Amazon, which back then was starting out as a bookseller, is now selling tablets at cost as a kind of access terminal to books, movies, magazines and other things digital. Facebook, which wasn’t even a glint in Mark Zuckerberg’s 11 year old eye at the time, is now the world’s biggest social network, but is really a vast walled garden where everything you do—from what you read, what you listen to, as well as how well you slept and who you had dinner with—is measured and sold to advertisers.

All these companies kind of look different, but they’re actually the same. Back in 1995 the PC was everything, and so therefore was the operating system and the software that ran on it. The web was barely a year old. Phones were big and clunky. So Microsoft used its power to dominate to sell us what made the most money: software.

Now, 15 or 16 years on, look how different it all is. Who cares about the operating system? Or the word processor? Or the PC? Everything is now mobile, hand-held, connected, shared, and what was expensive is now free, more or less. Instead, most of these companies now make their money through eyeballs, and gathering data about our habits, along with micropayments from data plans and apps, online games and magazines.

And to do this they all have to play the same game Microsoft played so well: Dominate the chain: Everything we do, within a Hotel California-like walled garden we won’t ever leave. So my predictions for next year, most of which  have been proved true in recent days : A Facebook phone which does nothing except through Facebook, an Amazon phone which brings everything from Amazon to your eyes and ears, but nothing else, an Apple-controlled telco that drops calls unless they’re on Apple devices. Google will push all its users into a social network, probably called Google+ and will punish those who don’t want to by giving them misleading search results. Oh, and Microsoft. I’m not sure about them. Maybe we’ll find out in Salt Lake City.

XP and the User’s Loss of Nerve

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Poor old Microsoft. They’ve had to extend the life of XP by offering it as an option to customers buying new hardware for another six months at least. They realise that people aren’t going to buy a Vista machine unless XP—what’s wonderfully called “downgrade media”–comes with it:

“As more customers make the move to Windows Vista, we want to make sure that they are making that transition with confidence and that it is as smooth as possible,” Microsoft said. “Providing downgrade media for a few more months is part of that commitment, as is the Windows Vista Small Business Assurance program, which provides one-on-one, customized support for our small-business customers.”

There’s a deeper issue here: Microsoft is beginning to recognise that no longer is there any appetite for users to upgrade operating systems themselves. Remember those lines around the block for Windows 3.1, 95, 98 and XP? Well, OK, maybe not all of them, but according to Wikipedia the fanfare surrounding the release of Windows 95 would nowadays be reserved for the ending of a major war. Or the launch of an iPhone, I guess.

Now we’re only interested in software upgrades if it’s a hardware upgrade. If then.

To be fair, I suspect this isn’t just the fault of Vista. I think a few other things have changed:

  • we’re less excited by software these days. Hardware we can get excited about, but as the proportion of people using technology has grown, the appetite for tweaking that technology has shrunk. Apple understand this, which is why they merge hardware and software, something Microsoft’s Balmer still doesn’t get.
  • Part of this is that I don’t think we believe our computers will do the things we think they will anymore. We drank the kool aid back then. We really thought the next iteration of an operating system would seriously improve our day. And, for the most part, it didn’t. So we moved on.
  • We’ve learned that our computers are getting too complex, and we trust them less. If it works, we’re happy. We don’t want to tempt fate by changing it. This feeds into security issues: We don’t feel safe online and so if we have any configuration that hasn’t arisen in calls from our bank or weird things popping up on our screen, we don’t want to experiment.

This feeds back to my running theme of recent weeks: The computer is becoming more and more like an appliance. We need it to to work, preferably out of the box. Apple (and the likes of Nokia, up to a point) have shown that to be possible, and so now we increasingly expect it of all our computing devices.

For the record I don’t necessarily think this is a good thing, because a dulled appetite for experimentation and change is never good, but after the ups and downs of the past few years, and the apparent failure of Vista, I can understand it.

In short, we users have lost our nerve.

Windows XP gets another lifeline : News : Software – ZDNet Asia

Photo credit: Bink.nu

Heathrow’s Old Windows

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Snapped this on my way to Gate 1 at Heathrow’s Terminal 3. I know the London hub has its problems, but I didn’t realise one of them was that its passenger information system — or at least part of it — was running on Windows 95, a 12-year old operating system that has not been supported by Microsoft since 2001.

Does it matter that flight information is being run on a system that Microsoft not only no longer sells, but it no longer supports?

I guess not, in some ways. Who cares, if it’s still working? (Well, in the case above, where one screen is in permanent ‘shutdown’ mode, and the other seems to be in permanent ‘boot’ mode, leaving me waiting patiently in the hope of getting some flight information, I guess I do.)

But how about security? If a software manufacturer no longer supports a product, it doesn’t just mean their helpdesk is no longer taking calls from baffled customers. It also means they’re not pushing out updates to the software that solve problems like the one above, or security patches to cover holes bad guys have found in the software.

This bit is more worrying. If a bad guy knows that Heathrow is using Windows 95 for some of its operations (and I guess he does now) it should be pretty easy to find a way in. While not many people use the software anymore (I couldn’t find any surveys on this, but anecdotally there don’t seem to be many folk out there using it), new vulnerabilities are appearing that affect both newer and older versions of Windows. So while XP users might get a patch, Windows 95, 98 and Me users won’t.

Anyway, I caught my flight OK. So maybe there’s nothing to worry about. Apart from realising that an airport I entrust my life to a few times a year is relying on software that, when first launched, didn’t even support Internet access.

Fripp, Eno and the Microsoft Sound

I don’t know whether to be delighted or depressed, but it seems many of my musical heroes are now writing music for computers. And it’s emerging as something of an art form in itself.

Robert Fripp, for example, is doing the music for the Windows Vista startup sound, as part of an 18 month project, according to this AP piece, to create good sounds for the software:

Fripp, best known for his work with the ’70s rock band King Crimson, recorded hours of his signature layered, guitar-driven sound for the project, under the close direction of Ball and others at Microsoft. Then, it was Ball’s job to sort through those hours of live recordings to suss out just the right few seconds.

You can hear the start-up clip there, and I have to confess it sounds lame. Perhaps it’s not the finished product but it doesn’t sound like Fripp. Scoble seems to agree, saying the final product is a version with very little of Fripp in there :

I was there while he was recording this, and I TOTALLY agree. You should have heard the raw sounds while they were being recorded. He did THOUSANDS of iterations.

In fact the sounds Fripp makes in that video are a piece in themselves.

The challenge they set for themselves is a tough one. Jim Allchin at the Windows Vista Blog says the startup sound

  • is made of dual ascending ‘glassy’ melodies played on top of a gentle fading Fripp ‘AERO’ Soundscape
  • has two parallel melodies played in an intentional “Win-dows Vis-ta” rhythm
  • consists of 4 chords, one for each color in the Windows flag
  • is ~4 seconds long, end-to-end
  • is a collaboration between contributors Robert Fripp (primary melody + Soundscape), Tucker Martine (rhythm) and Steve Ball (harmony and final orchestration)

Indeed, it was Brian Eno, another hero of mine, who recorded the music for Windows 95. If you’ve forgotten what it sounds like, it’s here, and now I realise why I love it. Eno found himself enjoying the limitations set for him and it triggered a creative spurt. Here’s an excerpt from an interview with Brian Eno from The SF Chronicle explaining how he came about to compose the music:

Q: How did you come to compose “The Microsoft Sound”?

A: The idea came up at the time when I was completely bereft of ideas. I’d been working on my own music for a while and was quite lost, actually. And I really appreciated someone coming along and saying, “Here’s a specific problem — solve it.”

The thing from the agency said, “We want a piece of music that is inspiring, universal, blah- blah, da-da-da, optimistic, futuristic, sentimental, emotional,” this whole list of adjectives, and then at the bottom it said “and it must be 3 1/4 seconds long.”

I thought this was so funny and an amazing thought to actually try to make a little piece of music. It’s like making a tiny little jewel.

In fact, I made 84 pieces. I got completely into this world of tiny, tiny little pieces of music. I was so sensitive to microseconds at the end of this that it really broke a logjam in my own work. Then when I’d finished that and I went back to working with pieces that were like three minutes long, it seemed like oceans of time.

According to the Music thing blog, Eno was paid $35,000 for the sound. What I’ve not been able to find out is who did the music for Windows 98, Windows Me and Windows XP. One rumor in the comments to the Music thing blog posting is that

The story I was given by an Microsoftie was that Eno set up the contract to be paid royalties for playing it, meaning that Microsoft’s attempts to use the sound for branding purposes in a commercial would mean royalty checks sent to Eno for each person that heard the sound (not merely hearing as the machine booted up). Way more expensive than the initial $35,000 payment.

Next time around for Win98, Microsoft farmed out the splash sound to an internal sound production crew. 🙂

I’ve no idea whether that’s true. I’ll try to find out. Of course, it’s not just system sounds that big musical names are getting involved with. Ryuichi Sakamoto, another god, has been recording ringtones for Nokia’s high end 8800. You can hear some of the sounds here. And Sakamoto’s most recent collaborator, Alva Noto (Carsten Nicolai), has offered up some ringtones of his own, which you can download as a ZIP file (go to the music page.)

I think that’s a cooler idea. How about David Sylvian, Bill Nelson, Thom Brennan and Tim Story put together their own collections of sounds for Windows, Macs and cellphones? I’d buy ’em.

Windows. How Much Pain Can You Take?

If you’re still happy with your Windows 98, Windows 98 Second Edition, and Windows Millennium Edition then you’re on your own. Microsoft won’t help you out after July 11, 2006, when it ends public and technical support. This doesn’t just mean not having someone to talk to on the phone. It means no more security updates, too, effectively rendering these operating systems useless. It’s a bit like Mad Max shoving the weak and helpless members of the Thunderdome community out beyond the gates at the mercy of those really ugly people whose name I can’t remember. Maybe they didn’t have a name. Maybe this analogy isn’t as good as I thought it was when I started writing it.

Anyway. Microsoft says it is “is ending support for these products because they are outdated and these older operating systems can expose customers to security risks.” Well, yes, but isn’t this because you’re not updating them anymore?  “We recommend,” Microsoft goes on, “that customers who are still running Windows 98 or Windows Me upgrade to a newer, more secure Microsoft operating system, such as Windows XP, as soon as possible.” Of course it’s natural to suggest your latest product is the best one, but it always makes me chuckle when Microsoft say this. You can almost hear their salesmen at work with recalcitrant customers:

“Why did you buy Windows 98? What were you thinking?”
“Well, at the time you said it was great. You said it was the best thing ever.”
“That was then, buddy, this is now. Now it’s the worst thing ever, and you should get our best operating system ever, namely XP, right up until Vista is ready and it becomes the worst thing ever. Then you should buy Vista, which by then will be …”
“The best thing ever?”
“You got it.”
“Shouldn’t I wait for Vista, then?”
“I wouldn’t do that, buddy.”
“Why not?”
“Well, er, frankly we’re not sure when it’s coming out.”
“So you know when products die, but you don’t know when new ones are coming out.”
“That’s right. So you want this XP or not?”

Actually, there are lots of things going on here. There’s the fact that people are so excited about Web applications — programs you run from your browser, rather than as a bigger separate program — that there’s a question mark about the need for Windows. You can run a Web application from any operating system (and most browsers.) And even if you are using Windows, it doesn’t really matter which one — it won’t really improve the quality of the Web application you’re using. So if you can’t get the user excited about the operating system, at least you can get them scared about security. That might prod them to upgrade.

There’s also the fact that operating systems just aren’t as exciting as they used to be anymore. Windows 95 had people queueing up around the block. Since then users have had to be bullied, enticed and scared into upgrading. Sure, XP is better than 98. Actually a lot better. But better for who? For what? A lot of folk, it seems, are still quite happy with Windows 98. If you’re using a computer more than 5 years old, it makes more sense to use 98, because XP will limp along. If you have an office full of computers, you might not want to splash out on XP licenses for all of them, in which case 98 makes sense too. If you’re the kind of person that just doesn’t feel the crazy urge to throw away your computer every few years, chances are you’re still using Windows 98. In fact, according to anecdote, there are still a lot of them out there. They don’t tend to show up in statistics because they’re not often, or at all, on the Internet. (Think old folk; think fixed incomes; think people who aren’t gaga over the whole Web 2.0 thang as we are.)

Then there’s my own pet theory. Most people don’t install operating systems. They just buy a new computer with it already installed. So: Hardware manufacturers are so upset that Vista won’t be out for Christmas — meaning that millions of people won’t bother buying a new computer then because there’s no new operating system to run it — that Microsoft decided to retire 98, Me and all the other slowcoaches, knowing that people won’t “upgrade” their software, they’ll upgrade their computer.

Microsoft has tried to shove Windows 98, and Me (not me, but Windows Me, the operating system) out to the knackers’ yard before. In early 2004 they backed off retiring support for these versions of Windows hoping to keep customers from wandering across the street to Linux. One piece on ZDNet back then quoted a Microsoft senior marketing manager as saying of customers, and I quote: “The more they are used to working one way, the more [it is] likely they will want to continue working that way, so it plays to our advantage. If they move to another operating system, they will need to rethink and relearn. For some people, that is painful. This is also why so many people are resisting an upgrade from Windows 98.” I love this argument. Turns out it’s all about pain. “Our software is so hard to figure out,” the pitch goes, “it actually causes our users pain. We’re counting on this pain to keep our customers. Do you want our pain or someone else’s pain? We’re going to get them hooked, and then they figure the pain they’re used to is better than the pain they’re not. Of course one day we’ll make it impossible for them not upgrade, but by then they’ll be so used to the pain, they would prefer a little extra pain than to switch to another vendor. Which would cause them even more pain.”

That day has come. Paid incident support and critical security updates for Windows 98, Windows 98 Second Edition, and Windows Me will end on July 11, 2006. No other security updates will follow after this date. You’re on your own, buddy.  Good luck out there.

98P.S. Actually, not entirely. There is a Microsoft web page that is dedicated to Windows 98 users. But it hasn’t been updated since October 31, 2002, and is it a coincidence that the only photo on that page is of someone in a d’oh moment, where it looks like they just lost all their files or had a major security breach on their Windows 98 computer? Talk about subliminal messages.

 
 
 
 

Windows 98 – Is Microsoft Really Dumping Users?

This from reader Jim Erlandson on Microsoft’s declining support for Windows 98:

“Windows 98 support isn’t dropping off the face of the earth according to Microsoft. $35 per incident phone support is. How many people do you know who have spent $35 for a phone call to Microsoft lately?

And a quote in C|Net indicates that security updates will probably still be released as needed. The company’s policy would not ordinarily call for Microsoft to provide any security-related patches, but in an e-mailed statement, the company said it would evaluate future threats as they emerge.

“In addition to the robust set of third-party security products we encourage all Windows customers to use, including antivirus and firewall products, (after Jan. 16) we will evaluate malicious threats to our customers’ systems on a case-by-case basis and take appropriate steps,” Microsoft said.

That bit about “more than 80 percent of companies surveyed were still using Windows 98 and/or Windows 95.” would be more interesting if they quoted percent of desktops. By their method, a company with thousands of Win XP machines and a single Win 98 box in the basement running the boiler would add to that 80 percent number – but not in a meaningful way.”

Thanks, Jim. All good points.

Windows 98 Users Face A Scary Future

A by-product of Microsoft’s decision to phase out support for some of its ‘old’ products, citing Java-related legal issues: users are going to be very exposed to viruses and bad stuff like that. Ottawa-based AssetMetrix Research Labs found that more than 80 percent of companies surveyed were still using Windows 98 and/or Windows 95.

“On January 16th, 2004, Microsoft Windows 98 enters the non-support portion of its support lifecycle. Windows 98 is considered obsolete, and security-based hot fixes will not be generally available for users of Windows 98 or Windows 98-Second Edition,” eWeek quoted Steve O’Halloran, managing director of AssetMetrix Research Labs, as saying.

This is daft. According to some reports, Microsoft doesn’t need to do all this until next September, raising suspicions that it’s just trying to make Sun — owner of Java — look like the evil wolf, and to force buying folk to migrate to XP. If any of this is true, I’d like to see Microsoft agree to provide security updates for at least Windows 98 users for as long as they can. I can’t see Sun, or the courts, objecting to that.

News: New Windows Is Out. Sort Of

 Psst! Wanna buy the latest version of Windows, years before you’re supposed to? Head off to Malaysia’s Johor Bahru, where CDs containing software Microsoft has code named “Longhorn” are on sale for six ringgit ($1.58).
 
Reuters reports that the software is an early version of Longhorn demonstrated and distributed at a conference for Microsoft programmers in Los Angeles in October, according to Microsoft Corporate Attorney Jonathan Selvasegaram.
“It’s not a ready product,” he said from Malaysia. “Even if it works for a while, I think it’s very risky,” to install on a home computer, he said.
 
Actually, this happens all the time. I’ve seen early versions of new Windows products all the way back to Windows 95 dotted around Asia. Most are a nightmare to install, and I’d steer clear of them if I were you.