Win 98 special report

Win 98 special report

Channel slams Microsoft's Win 98 marketingLarge sections of the channel are disappointed with the level of marketing and product information forthcoming from Microsoft, according to ARN's spot survey this week. ARN's inbox was flooded with complaints regarding the lack of information Microsoft has provided for this release.

Alex Iden, purchasing manager at Abacus Calculators, said the only hype being generated was coming from "the US DoJ court action, not Microsoft".

Meanwhile Joel Quinton, a sales staffer at Victoria's Ocean Office Automation, said: "I have heard a little about Windows 98, but not enough. I haven't seen any real advertising from Microsoft promoting it, or its benefits."

Greg Newman, a corporate manager at Harvey Norman, also thought the litigation news in the mainstream media has done more to alert the market about Windows 98 than Microsoft. "They [MS] have not communicated a single thing to anyone in this store except maybe to the proprietor. All my customers know is that June 25 is the date and I don't have a standout reason to sell it [Win 98] to them," he said.

It's possible that everyone was spoilt by the fanfare of Windows 95 because this time around they are getting very little wave- making from North Ryde.

"This has been nothing like the Windows 95 release," said Jon Halley, assistant manager at A.I. Electronics and Hobbies, while Andrew McGregor, a staffer at Text 100 Australia may possibly be a little out of the loop when he admitted he didn't know it was due out this week, but maybe not.

"We find very few customers, apart from the 'die-hards' who are aware the product exists, or is due for release. Windows 95 was totally different. Even non-users were fully aware," said James Quiring, proprietor of Central Coast (NSW) retailer Excitech.

"A bit of POS material has been submitted but there's not much hype like when Windows 95 was released. I think all the anti-Microsoft publicity about Internet Explorer might have something to do with it," opined Jeff Dicton, a Perth store manager for Dick Smith Electronics.

Simon Stahn, a consultant with AdrenaLAN P/L said as an MS sales partner he has received nothing.

His clients are opting to stick with a Win 95/Office97 platform with a view to possibly moving next year.

"From this I gather Microsoft hasn't done such a good job this time around," he said.

Beta users weigh up 98

Ignore the cynics who dismiss Windows 98 as Win 95 with a bug fix and a fresh coat of paint. But don't expect a quantum leap forward in operating systems either.

Members of Australia's reseller community using beta versions of Win 98 in the months leading up to its general release cite improved support for hardware and accessories as one of its pleasant surprises.

Messy problems with new motherboard chip sets and videocards are eased by Win 98's "far superior hardware support", according to Jonathan Levine, a consultant at Intermedia.

"Basically, it is the best implementation of plug and Play we have yet seen," he said.

"We've found when we build a system and install Win 98 that it generally detects everything. Instead of prompting for the manufacturer's driver, it has specially optimised drivers for the hardware."

As a bonus, the Windows Update feature gives Win 98 the ability to upgrade itself by checking over the Internet for updates from Microsoft and downloading them.

Gamers are onto a winner with Win 98 because of its improved multimedia support, beta users agree. It boasts faster compression/decompression of multimedia files and has built-in DirectX Media 5.1 which promotes crisper sound, better 3D graphics, animation and multi-player online games.

The Internet experience in general is improved by Win 98, aided by having Internet Explorer built into the operating system. That fact has put Microsoft offside with the US Dept of Justice; however, beta users report few problems loading Netscape or other browsers of choice.

Win 98 also offers users the opportunity to use dual screens where one is running, say, a full screen Word application and the other full screen Excel. It may be an enticing feature for power CAD users but appeared to be of only academic interest to most beta users.

And yes, users agree Win 98 does squash a few bugs to emerge as a more reliable, stable platform than its predecessor.

Retailers should get on the bus - the USB that isMicrosoft cites Windows 98's support for Universal Serial Bus (USB) ports as one of the biggest steps forward. These ports make it easier for users to add and interchange peripheral devices. As this offers opportunities to sell a variety of new hardware with the software, it is possibly also the single feature of most interest to the channel.

Building support for peripherals such as scanners, external storage devices, video cameras and games controllers into the operating system is claimed to make the whole process of Plug and Play a reality. Where once it was necessary to reconfigure the operating system, locate the software and then reboot the system whenever a new device was added, it is now just a case of plugging it into a USB module at the back of the monitor, or elsewhere on the desktop.

Any which way you look at it, that is a step forward.

"The big thing about Windows 98 is that it is an enabling technology," said Tony Wilkinson, Microsoft's marketing manager for the product. "We have focused heavily on pulling down the 'too-hard' barriers which have in the past stopped users from buying and using many of the add-on peripherals now available," he added.

More functionality

"When consumers make a decision to change their PC it is usually because they want to add more functionality. Windows 98 gives them that opportunity and it is up to retailers to convert that interest. You are not just selling a piece of software, you are selling a technology that enables all this hardware. That has to be an opportunity for the channel," said Wilkinson.

Windows 98 is mainly aimed at the family and SOHO user and support for USB will bring with it a rash of new devices from vendors capitalising on it. These accessories will offer very real up-sell opportunity to retailers.

As examples, Philips has already developed a five-port USB module (retails for about $120) for its high-end monitors that have had a bay ready to accept it for a few generations. Meanwhile, Kodak has USB-equipped video and still cameras and Sirius Technologies indicates modems are on the way.

Win 98 roll-out on track for assemblers

Local assemblers are maintaining a "steady as she goes" approach to the Windows 98 roll-out.

According to Microsoft OEM sales manager Dave Wrathall, everything is on track for the official June 25 release, and authorised replicators are producing Windows 98 packs for supply with new systems according to the schedule previously reported (see ARN, May 27).

Todaytech managing director Jack Zhon reported that it has been shipping systems complete with Windows 98 to its resellers since Monday last week. He did not know whether a current upswing in sales relates to the release, the seasonal end of financial year burst or a combination of both.

Zhong said that Todaytech had been supplying the free upgrade coupons with all new systems since April so, if there had been any pent-up demand, it would be difficult to gauge. He added that from the indications of their monthly customer surveys, which include reasons for buying, there was no indication of Windows 98 being a major factor. Zhong said that their resellers can expect an announcement about a special offer after the official release date.

Like other major assemblers, Anabelle Bits' director, Maree Lowe, said that the roll- out was proceeding to plan and, although the distributor doesn't have a big retail market, orders for the systems with Win 98 were starting to pick up.

Optima product manager Darren Davis confirmed that it has been shipping the new version since June 15 - as per plan - but had not been doing much promotion. According to Davis, Optima customers had not shown any overwhelming demand for the upgrade, and had not used the coupon system offered by other assemblers.

Wrathall concluded that the strongest take up was with those assemblers that are most active in home and retail markets.

Is Navigator too slow for Win 98?

Netscape Communications expects a tough battle against Microsoft's Windows 98, with its built-in browser. But what it might not be prepared for is the dramatic performance edge Microsoft may have in the Windows 98 browser space.

Based on interviews from US beta testers, it has become clear that Microsoft's integration of the Internet Explorer (IE) browser into the operating system lets the browser start up faster, often a lot faster.

A producer at a major game publisher in the US believes IE benefits by having many of its resources load up along with the rest of the operating system at boot up. "Clearly the startup is enormously faster on IE than on Navigator. It's probably pre-launching, pre-caching and pre-everything,'' he said.

Retailers keen for a boost

Despite acknowledging demand for Win 98 falls short of its predecessor Win 95, retailers contacted by ARN last week say customer interest is accelerating. They concluded its obvious role in retail sales over the next couple of years could not be ignored.

All were confident Microsoft's new operating system would be a good seller and presented opportunities for them on accessories. On the whole, they have stocked up for early demand and are already tallying advance orders.

Director of Harris Technologies Ron Harris said he has definitely experienced a surge of enquiries from small business and SOHO customers as well as notebook users. "We feel we will be able to move a lot of the product," said Harris, who has ordered "well over 1000 copies for the first few weeks".

Demand to pick up

"I think the momentum will keep building up. By later in the year, demand will be very strong. There will also be a lot of new peripheral products to sell. We've been talking to Logitech and other suppliers with USB products on the way to complement it," Harris said.

Alex Vassallo, manager of independent retailer Meghead, said he's also experienced "increased interest" from a variety of customers over the last few weeks but "not as much as there was with Windows 95".

Vassallo also thought there would be people who sit back to see what bugs emerge before diving in. "We heard a lot of complaints from customers with Windows 95 and don't know how Windows 98 is going to turn out," he said.

Dick Smith Electronics' public relations manager, Fiona Connor, said the retail chain's Bankstown Powerhouse store would open from midnight on launch day. "We believe there will be considerable interest in the beginning but its true value will be a cumulative thing," she said.

Interest to grow

While agreeing that "it certainly hasn't had the build-up of Windows 95", Connor also noted that: "We are very positive about the sales that will be generated by Windows 98 and are pleased with the interest registered by consumers."

Frank Kavanagh, Myer Grace Bros' national buyer, computers and software, also said he is "positive" about the boost Windows 98 will give retailers and is expecting demand to come in two stages. "There will be the initial rush when the product is launched and I think there will be another wave once awareness increases," he said.

IT managers snub upgrade

Australian IT managers won't be migrating to the Windows 98 operating system, but systems integrators are not surprised, according to an ARN straw poll.

"Corporates are not looking at Windows 98 at all," according to Reid MacDonald, software licensing manager for Praxa. "The majority of corporates are very much committed to the Windows NT platform or at least creating a migration path from Windows 95 to Windows NT."

Darron Lonstein, ComTech's director of network services, echoes MacDonald's sentiments that the biggest barrier to Windows 98's corporate success is NT, especially as the release of Microsoft's golden goose - Windows NT 5.0 - looms on the early 1999 horizon.

NT - a better option?

"A lot of corporations are evaluating Windows 98 against NT 5.0 as a strategic direction," Lonstein said. "For those requiring a more pressing upgrade the option will be NT 4.0 or Windows 98. But either way, I believe the majority of decisions will go to NT.

"Having said that, I believe that there will be some corporations that adopt Windows 98 [for varying reasons], but I don't believe we'll see the same corporate impact as we did with Windows 95."

Ross Moody, Senteq Information Systems' sales manager, also doubts Windows 98 will penetrate as deeply into the corporate psyche as Windows 95 has.

"I don't think the Windows 98 release is going to have much of an impact on the corporate market. The product will be successful no matter what because the low-end corporates and retail market will buy it, but not many of the medium and large corporates are going to jump into it," Moody said.

The opinions of systems integrators align closely with those of IT managers spoken to by ARN.

Con Colovof, IT manager at Pepsi-Cola Bottlers Australia, is one Windows 95 user who's skipping Windows 98 for NT.

"We have to migrate because Windows 95 is not Y2K-compliant, but Windows 98 is still in its infancy and we have to go with a proven platform," Colovof said. "We have tested NT 4.0 and found it to be a reliable platform so we'll go with that instead."

Yet some IT managers, like Scott Lindsay of interior decorating firm Interco, are quite happy to stick with Windows 95.

"We have fairly basic needs and don't need a hell of lot of the features in Windows 98 so we don't plan to upgrade," Lindsay said. "We're happy with Windows 95."

Gilbert Lodge Australia, an engineering products distributor, is in a similar situation, according to the company's systems administrator, Joanne Stephens.

"We've only just started buying PCs in the company so we have no plans to migrate to Windows 98 in the short term. If it comes to a situation where we have to, we will, but otherwise we'll just stay with Windows 95," she said.

Some corporates are intending to take advantage of the new platform.

"We'll definitely migrate to Windows 98 because we want to move away from the Windows 3 x platform," said Geoff McKeand, MIS manager at Schwarzkopf. "We're not terribly interested in the new features, but it's pointless moving to Windows 95 if Windows 98 is available. So assuming there are no major problems with it when it's released, we'll move to it pretty well straight away."

Glitch control

Brendan Burgess, managing director of Corporate Computer Sales, claims Windows 98 may also help corporate users smooth out system glitches.

"There's now a big infrastructure on Windows 95 across Australian corporates and many will move to Windows 98 because it fixes problems on their existing platform."

Windows 98 could also flourish if Microsoft can't get the next version of Windows NT to market soon, Burgess said.

"If they don't hurry up and roll out NT 5.0 by September, companies won't roll it out until after 2000 which could provide opportunities for Windows 98."

So its seems the Windows 98 door is open, albeit only slightly, for systems integrators in medium and large organisations.

Praxa's MacDonald concluded: "Some corporates will go to Windows 98 but it's not going to be the mainstream or the norm."

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