As information technology becomes something that almost everyone wants to, or has to, work with, ease of use becomes all the more important. While enthusiasts struggle with computer operating systems, and programs which require knowledge of obscure commands the more masochistic even appearing to enjoy such things others who would simply like to use a computer to assist their work or play often don't get past the starting post.
The continuing expansion of personal computers into schools, businesses and homes is, perhaps, the driving force behind Windows 95, a radically new version of the operating system now supplied with almost every IBM and compatible computer.
Never slow in coming forward, Microsoft's emphasis in the next generation of Windows software is on ease of use and simplicity of networking as much, if not more , than on improvements in performance.
Windows 95 promises much and is currently at the Beta-2 test stage (releases will now be known by the year in which they are released hence the jump from 3.1 to 95). This means that most of the decisions regarding facilities and style of operation have been made and "fine tuning" (particularly for performance) will take place following further testing before release. The estimated time of arrival of the final release is thought to be August.
At last Windows is to be freed from the constraints of operating on top of the original MS-Dos operating system. This brings many gains, particularly in terms of performance and robustness. Awkward applications, which used to stop the whole system, can now be "terminated" without affecting other programs already running.
Long filenames are also available racking your brains to remember which eight-letter mnemonic stands for the file you want becomes a thing of the past. Oddly enough, Windows 95 runs Dos programs much more effectively than the current Windows; some applications which I could only run by quitting Windows now run without any problems.
There are radical changes to the user interface the way users actually manipulate the computer. Program Manager and File Manager have disappeared (they are available, if required, to ease the transition) and are replaced by a combination of tools. Clicking on a "start" button pops up menus containing different applications. One particularly useful menu shows the last few files you worked on; clicking on one of these starts the application and loads the file.
Users are encouraged, therefore, to think more about the tasks they actually want to do (the documents) rather than the tools they have to use (the applications).
None of this will be new to Apple Mac users who have enjoyed such an approach for years. However, Windows 95 offers, in addition, a considerable degree of flexibility and ease of customisation for different users.
The whole system appears to have been designed around the notion that networking connecting to other computers will be the norm rather than the exception. Such connections may be made within a building (by network cabling or radio links) or to other locations via telephone and other, higher-speed links. Software to connect to Microsoft's own emerging global network and to some of the services on the Internet is included as standard.
Integration with other equipment, such as fax machines, is also catered for with options to send and receive faxes built in as standard. By including tools such as this as part of the system, Microsoft is hoping to encourage developers to make use of these facilities in their software. Tools to enable access by those with physical, visual or aural handicaps are again included as standard.
So does Windows 95 look like meeting the ambitious claims made by the designers? Although the version reviewed is not finished and will, no doubt, change before final release, it does seem well on the way to meeting these claims. Many of the new tools and operations are either obvious and intuitive in their use, or come with appropriate prompts and hints to guide you through the process. The whole package feels more natural while maintaining sufficient continuity with current systems.
The ability to configure access to programs and commands for different users is potentially very powerful for both school and home use. Packages like RM's Window Box take this approach and have been received well in primaries.
While it's all very well having wonderful facilities, it's not much use if the software will only run on the latest, more powerful computers. This usually means that users have to cope with yet another different system, depending upon which computer they use. Microsoft says that with a PC 386DX and four megabytes of memory, performance will be as good as with Windows 3.1.
To test this, I tried using an even lower specification machine a 386SX with a lower processor speed (25 megahertz) and four megabytes of memory and a relatively slow hard disc. Although some things, notably starting up, were slower, the actual operation of software was similar.
On more powerful systems, performance under Windows 95 was significantly better than with Windows 3.1, particularly when running multiple applications. Playback of video and sound on multimedia systems was also noticeably improved.
Should you plan to upgrade your existing systems when Windows 95 is finally released? Assuming that the final product does the things the test version does with performance as good or better, the answer has to be a most definite yes if you use networks. The tools provided and level of integration between Windows and the network make management and use easier as well as improve performance.
If you use purely stand-alone systems, then it's still well worth considering. If you cope well with Windows 3.1 and don't intend to run more than one program at a time, you can get away without changing. If, however, you are attracted by the improved interface, ease of use and management utilities then you should seriously consider upgrading all PCs (386 or higher specification).
Given Windows's market lead, I can't see how this version can fail, as long as the price is attractive to enable existing users to upgrade.