|STANLEY ZAROWIN is a senior editor on the Journal. Mr. Zarowin 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.|
Many CPAs are asking, Should I upgrade?
This article presents the major advantages and disadvantages of an upgrade to the new Windows operating systemand the one other option you have: skipping Windows 98 and going directly to NT. But more about that later.
If youre still running DOS or an early Windows operating systemWindows 3.0 or 3.1the answer is simple: Do it! You have everything to gain and nothing to lose. But if your computer is equipped with Windows 98s predecessor, Windows 95, the answer is a bit more complicated. Even those who dont 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 its become a clich (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, its really the same old Windows 95 with many enhancements and the old bugs fumigated. Thats not to say that new, mutated bugs wont 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 irritationssuch as when, under very unusual circumstances, a command wont 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, youll need a computer with a Pentium processor and 16 megabytes (Mb) of RAM. Dont 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. Youll also need a CD-ROM drive because Windows 98 comes only on a CD.
REASONS TO UPGRADE
Lets 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. After youre up and running, Windows 98 gives you the option of converting all your filesapplications and datato a FAT32 format from FAT16. If you make the conversion, and you should, many of your applications will run faster and youll gain between 20% and 30% of hard-disk 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). Thats true even if the data in the cluster total only 1 Kb, which means 31 Kb of space is wasted: Its comparable to storing a single egg in a 12-egg cartonlots of wasted space. With FAT32, the minimum cluster is only 4 Kb, hence a huge potential saving.
Warning: When youre invited to make the conversion, youre told it will take several hours to complete. Thats 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 wont convert the files to FAT32. However, since new, high-capacity hard disks can be bought for a few hundred dollars, its 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 thats too big or too fast.
Contributing to the speed gain is a built-in maintenance program wizard that automatically cleans up hard-disk clutter and eliminates duplicate drivers (application files that are similar to worker beeseach 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 problemletting the computer complete its startup and thus giving you the opportunity to replace the pesky component or driver once youre 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 utilitiesall compressed to save spacethat 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 thats 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 backups regularly and not be tempted to put off the job, the time-saver option would be a better choice.
Crash protection. Windows 98 isnt 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 programsutilities that help a laptop conserve battery powerget 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 arent 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 flythat is, you dont have to take any extra steps. Just the act of opening the file unzips it and its ready to use. Ive 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.
THE BAD NEWS
And now, lets look at the offsetsthe disadvantages of conducting an upgrade.
Security. Although Windows 95s security (password protection) is hardly a serious obstacle to even moderately savvy techies, Windows 98 doesnt 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 comeafter all, its running on many millions of computers around the worldwho 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. Lets take a closer look at NTwhich stands for new technologyto 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 youre technical, you cant 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, thats 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 Windowsand which run excellently in Windowswill either not run in NT or at least wont 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. Its 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 tomorrows software and making NT the operating system for their future 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 safetys sake, dont just take Microsofts or the application developers 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 secureso 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 computerswithout special, third-party network software.
So, youre 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 issuesstability, security and compatibilityhave equally high priority?
You may have to toss a coin.