Microsoft's Windows 3.0, unveiled Tuesday, may turn out to be the most significant development in the nine-year history of IBM and compatible personal computers. The software, which works with the MS-DOS operating system, makes it possible for millions of those machines to use an attractive graphical interface similar to that on the Apple Macintosh.
Windows 3.0, with a suggested list price of $149, is neither a program nor an operating system. It is an operating environment. As such, it governs the look of the screen, the way users interact with programs and even the way programs operate. It runs under the regular MS-DOS operating system on any IBM compatible with an Intel 286, 386 or 486 central processing unit. Machines must also have a hard disk, a graphic display and at least 1 megabyte of memory. Although Windows will work with regular MS-DOS programs, it works best when used with software designed especially for Windows.
Windows 3.0 has four primary advantages over regular MS-DOS. First, all programs written for Windows have a similar look and feel. Once you learn how to use one Windows program, you have a head start on the others. Second, the graphical environment assures that programs operate in a "what you see is what you get" mode so that what you see on the screen looks like what you'll get on paper. Third, Windows, as does the Mac, makes it easy to transfer data from one program to another. It's as simple as highlighting the information with the mouse, copying it to the clipboard and pasting it in another program.
Finally, Windows 3.0 is a multi-tasking operating environment. That means it's possible to load several programs into the computer's memory and switch between them with a single command or mouse movement. You can even have several programs share the screen, each in its own window. As I write this article, I am simultaneously transmitting data to another computer. What's more, my spreadsheet and drawing programs are in memory so that I can switch to them in less than a second without having to stop what I'm doing.
Windows 3.0 can take advantage of up to 16 megabytes of memory. Regular MS-DOS programs can use only 640K. I'm not suggesting you buy that much memory for your system, but the more memory you have, the more programs you can run at one time. Extra memory also increases performance in some situations.
Users whose machines are equipped with an Intel 386 or 486 CPU will be able to use Windows to run several DOS or Windows applications in the background, with each program behaving as if it's running in its own dedicated PC. It's also possible for 386 users to allocate part of their hard disk to simulate random access memory. This so-called virtual memory allows the 386 to continue to run programs even after you've run out of regular memory.
I doubt if anyone but a software reviewer would do this, but as a test, I used Windows on an 8-megabyte 386 to run WordPerfect, WordStar, Microsoft Word, Lotus 1-2-3, Prodigy, Quattro, Word for Windows, Excel, Microphone II and several other Windows and non-Windows programs--all at the same time. Each behaved perfectly. The only program I couldn't run was the one that controls my compact disc drive. Ironically, that software was developed by Microsoft--the same company that developed Windows.
You can't run Windows 3.0 on a PC or PC/XT equipped with an Intel 8088 or 8086 CPU. However, most of those machines can be modified with faster CPUs.
If you buy Windows you should also count on buying new Windows-compatible software. It's possible to use your old software, but the programs will look and operate just like they always have. They will not offer Windows' graphical user interface, although you will be able to use Windows to copy and paste information between regular DOS programs or between DOS and Windows programs. Some programs written to run under previous versions of Windows must be modified before they can run properly with the new version.
Windows 3.0 comes with several free programs to get you started, including a basic word-processing program, a calculator, a couple of games, a reasonably good communications program and a personal organizer, called Daybook. Daybook includes a place for your schedule, address book and "to do" list.
Early versions of Windows were criticized as being slow and ugly. What's more, there has been a dearth of software. The new Windows is a lot faster and a lot prettier. I've been using a prerelease copy for about a month and I'm extremely impressed with its features, performance and reliability. I didn't get out my stop watch to perform any timing tests, but its performance on my 386-based PC seems at least as good as what I'm getting on a similarly equipped Macintosh IIci --a machine with a street price that's more than twice the cost of my PC. I was pleasantly surprised at how well Windows performed on a minimal configuration when I tested it on a machine with a 286 CPU and 1 megabyte of random-access memory. If you shop around you can find such machines, equipped with a hard disk and a high-resolution color monitor, for about $1,000.
Microsoft and other software companies are rushing to provide software to run under Windows. Microsoft has already released Windows versions of its spreadsheet (Excel) and word processing (Word) software. Software Ventures has announced a forthcoming version of its Microphone Communications software, and WordPerfect Corp. is working on a Windows version of its best-selling word processing program. hDC Computer Corp. of Redmond, Wash., has released some very good utilities programs for Windows, including one that makes it easier to locate and run programs. Asymetrix, of Bellevue, Wash., has already released ToolBook, a software development tool that is somewhat similar to Apple's HyperCard language.
In an effort to add value to its systems and simplify the lives of its dealers and customers, Zenith Data Systems is loading Windows 3.0 along with ToolBox and DOS 4.0 on the hard disks of all its 286 and 386 desktop machines. Zenith is also including a mouse as standard equipment.
Zenith, along with Microsoft, commissioned a study that concluded that graphical user interfaces such as Windows and Macintosh cause users to work faster and better and achieve higher productivity and lower frustration than those using a regular, non-graphical interface.
Novice users of a graphics-based system completed 42% more tasks than novice users of a non-graphics system, according to the study conducted by the research firm Temple, Baker & Sloane. Experienced users were 35% more productive, according to the report.
The new version of Windows is an exciting and important development, bringing many advantages of the Apple Macintosh to lower-priced IBM compatibles. It breathes new life into the old MS-DOS operating system and has turned me into a born-again DOS user.