A year ago Windows 95 was known as Chicago and expected late in 1994. Since then a combination of curiosity, speculation, publicity and delay has made this operating system the cynosure of the computer business.
Countering industry japes that the long-delayed product might not arrive before its name became history, Microsoft Corp. has announced that Windows 95 will be available Aug. 24, the date when Mount Vesuvius erupted in A.D. 79.
Barring a similar cataclysm, it is safe to say that lots of people will be using Windows 95 before long. But few programs are fully compatible with Windows 95, and until new versions arrive beginning right after the Vesuvius anniversary, using Windows 95 is unlikely to be the joyful experience Microsoft would have you believe.
Even when new programs do appear, mixing them with current models may produce confusion and possibly grief.
Windows 95 appears to do a decent job of maintaining compatibility with current programs (though more than 200, including many utilities, are known not to run properly). Its greatest problem may be the perennial file name perplex.
DOS and Windows users suffer with file names limited to 11 characters in the "8-dot-3" format (GRIFFEYS.BAT SOISYOUR.SYS) that DOS filched long ago from a system called CP/M, which had swiped it from big old machines.
Windows 95 eliminates this restriction (which the Macintosh abolished more than a decade ago) by allowing file names as long as 255 characters (though for a variety of good reasons Microsoft recommends a limit of 50 to 75), so you can call a file "Expenses for April 95 FungusCon." But that works only with programs specifically designed for Windows 95.
Unfortunately, virtually none of the DOS and Windows programs available today can view, create, or otherwise deal with long file names.
To maintain compatibility with these programs, Windows 95 automatically creates an 8-dot-3 "alias" for each long file name. "Funguses for June" might become FUNGUS1.DOC "Funguses for July" might be FUNGUS2.DOC. But if you prefer for clarity that April be FUNGUS4.DOC and May FUNGUS5.DOC, tough.
Windows 95 assigns the aliases in order, avoiding conflicts, and you cannot directly manipulate them.
Except for files named under standard 8-dot-3 conventions, tilde-filled aliases are the only file names current Windows and DOS programs can see in Windows 95.
The operating system does try to keep each long file name linked to the proper short one, but it does not always succeed. Use a current DOS or Windows program (say, your word processor) to rename the file or copy it, and Windows 95 will forget the long file name entirely.
If that does not sound confusing enough, stick around. Older Windows and DOS systems can be, as Robert Hummel, a programmer and author, points out in great technical detail in the June issue of PC Techniques, "positively hostile" to long file names and even files themselves.
Say Windows 95 has given "Stuff of January" and "Stuff of February" files on your hard drive the aliases STUFFO1 and STUFFO2.
If you copy the "Stuff of February" file to an empty floppy disk, Windows 95 will give it a new alias of STUFFO1 (the lowest unconflicted name) for that disk. Manipulate that file with a system running DOS or Windows 3.1 (or in some cases an old DOS or Windows program running under Windows 95), and STUFFO1 will still contain the data for February, but its long file name will disappear.
Copy the file back to the hard drive, and it will neatly overwrite not the February file to which it corresponds, but the January file with the same short name. Ouch!
In its manuals, Microsoft hints that confusion may occur if you mix long and short file names, which is almost guaranteed to happen until systems and networks are running mostly Windows 95 and programs designed for it.
Microsoft kindly suggests using naming conventions like "Oct Status Report" instead of "Status Report for Oct."
Or perhaps you might, as Microsoft puts it, "give files a short file name as part of the long file name," suggesting by way of example "Mktgrpt-Marketing Report for our new project," or MKTGR1.TXT. Macintosh users may be pardoned for snickering.
If you are thinking about buying a Windows-based computer between now and Aug. 24, think carefully, since Windows 3.11 and its companion Windows for Workgroups are the only versions currently available.
To avoid having to pay the roughly $100 upgrade fee for Windows 95, make certain your dealer will give you an official upgrade free. Gateway 2000 Inc. has announced just such a policy. Other manufacturers have similar plans in the works.
Now think again. Windows 95 differs from Windows 3.1 in many ways, including its user interface. If you are new to computing, learning Windows 3.1 in its waning years may make little sense.
Even power users may not want to bother fiddling with Windows 3.1 only to install Windows 95 weeks or months later. Computer prices tend to trend only downward, and the next generation of multimedia machines is likely to include built-in hardware called MPEG (Motion Picture Experts Group) decoding that lets a CD-ROM deliver picture quality nearly the equal of a videocassette.
Although older machines can be upgraded to MPEG (and particularly fast ones may be able to do it through software), the cost and trouble are worth avoiding.
Windows 95 should offer real advantages over its predecessors (along with the usual collection of debutante gaffes), and a Vesuvius of ink about them will erupt in the coming weeks.
But some of the benefits apply only marginally to hardware and software available today and come with major frustrations of their own.
Consider plodding along with Windows 3.1 until you are ready, willing and able to replace your old applications with new ones.