NT 5: running late, worth the wait?

The new wave: the latest version of Windows NT looks impressive. Which is a good thing, too, because Microsoft has decided that NT 5 is going to be your next desk to operating system -- someday. 'Windows NT Workstation 5,' boasts Microsoft's Web site, 'is the premier desktop operating system for organisations of all sizes ... the easiest Windows yet.' Pretty bold claims, given that NT 5 exists only in beta form and isn't expected to ship until 1999.

The new wave: the latest version of Windows NT looks impressive. Which is a good thing, too, because Microsoft has decided that NT 5 is going to be your next desk to operating system -- someday.

"Windows NT Workstation 5," boasts Microsoft's Web site, "is the premier desktop operating system for organisations of all sizes ... the easiest Windows yet." Pretty bold claims, given that NT 5 exists only in beta form and isn't expected to ship until 1999. In coming months, you can expect the company's hoopla machine to shift into overdrive, even as the operating system's shipping schedule recedes further into the future.

Feeling a touch of deja vu yet? We go through this same frustrating ritual each time a new version of Windows appears on the horizon. The stakes have never been higher, though, since Microsoft is already positioning NT 5 as the operating system of choice for business users. Furthermore, it's the only major Windows upgrade in the works: Windows 98, says the company, represents the end of the Windows 3.x/95/98 line, and NT is the wave of the future. Which means that someday you'll probably be using NT 5. And if our early look at the desktop OS is any indication, that's not necessarily a bad thing at all: NT 5 could end up melding the best qualities of the 9x and NT product lines.

Problem is, the product's arrival date remains an open question. Dwight Davis, an analyst at Summit Strategies in Kirkland, Washington, thinks Microsoft will probably get the long-overdue package out the door during the second half of 1999. Microsoft president Steve Ballmer admitted recently that NT 5 -- once expected to arrive in 1997 -- would probably ship sometime between May and September of 1999. Microsoft insists the product won't appear until its corporate beta testers say it's ready. "Our customers are saying, 'We don't care if it ships two months late or two months early,'" says Bob Visse, an NT product manager. "'What we want is a quality release.'"

The new operating system inched closer to reality in August, when Microsoft released beta 2 versions of both the Workstation and the Server editions of NT. (As the names imply, Workstation runs on individual desktop PCs, while Server is designed to operate a network.) Despite being considerably more polished than the early beta Workstation we tried last year, both new versions remain rough drafts, and it's too early to test performance and stability.

Our informal tests of the Workstation version -- along with Microsoft's demonstrations of the Server edition's new capabilities -- indicate that NT 5 holds a boatload of promise, combining the strongest features of the NT and Win 95/98 product lines. However, Microsoft's slipping schedule and the trepidation with which most companies approach OS upgrades suggest that many of us may be using our current version of Windows -- be it 3.1, 95, 98, or NT 3.51 or 4.0 -- into the next millennium.

Five thousand programmers, 250,000 beta testers, more than 30 million lines of code -- even by operating-system standards, NT 5 is a project of epic proportions. Hence the delays in its development: "In some ways, it's a brand-new operating system as much as an upgrade to NT 4.0," says analyst Davis.

Some things will not change: NT 5 will retain the basic 32-bit architecture of earlier versions, sidestepping much of the notorious unreliability of other Windows editions and adding far more built-in security. But NT 5 will also inherit many features from Windows 9x, including the Plug and Play hardware configuration and support for new technologies such as Universal Serial Bus. NT will finally get power management for notebooks, too, though only for ones that use the ACPI standard; Win 95 and 98 support the older, more pervasive APM spec. (See www.teleport.com/~acpi/adapt.htm for a list of ACPI adopters.) NT 5 will also come with Internet Explorer 5 built in, unless the Department of Justice puts the kibosh on Microsoft's browser-operating system integration.

NT 5 should have somewhat better hardware and software compatibility than previous versions, as it will work with hardware drivers written to the Windows Driver Model specification, which Windows 98 also uses -- and which, as a result, many new peripherals will support. But older, pre-WDM hardware may not be compatible. Microsoft will also help third-party software vendors develop and deliver software updates to make their applications NT 5-compatible -- and vendors may write those patches, once the NT 5 blitz starts in earnest.

While most of those improvements merely help NT 5 catch up to Win 95 and 98, the Windows interface will receive a makeover. To reduce Start menu clutter, you can customize the menu to show only your most-used applications. (You can still see the full menu by holding the mouse cursor over the Start button.) File Open and Save dialog boxes will let you jump to recently used folders with a couple of clicks. A browser-style interface for Windows' search tools will let you find files on your hard disk, search the Internet, and query online e-mail and phone directories.

A number of existing tools will be revamped or replaced. Network Neighborhood will be renamed My Network Places, and will use a new wizard to take some of the pain out of such tasks as connecting to a LAN, creating Dial-Up Networking connections, and using the Internet to establish a Virtual Private Network. Security, already a strong point of NT compared to what's available in other Windows versions, will be beefed up with features such as built-in encryption for files and folders.

Some of Microsoft's most radical plans are reserved for NT Server 5, the network OS version of the product. Its key new feature: Active Directory, an enterprise-wide database of network users and resources that's designed primarily to make life easier for IS staffers who administer large LANs.

Nonetheless, end-users will notice benefits, too. For one thing, the Active Directory will make it easier to find the most appropriate printer for a given job -- say, a fast color laser on your floor that can handle that 50-page PowerPoint presentation. Then there's IntelliMirror, a backup utility that will silently copy your system's settings and files across the network. According to Microsoft, this will enable you to recover from a PC disaster in a matter of minutes by restoring your data onto another system.

Although you can use NT 5 Workstation as a stand-alone OS, some promising NT 5 network-oriented features, such as IntelliMirror, will work only if your company uses Server and Workstation versions of the new OS. Still, if your firm installs NT Server 5 but leaves an older version of Windows on your PC, don't despair: Microsoft plans to release add-ons to let older Win versions take advantage of some of NT Server's new tools.

Once Windows NT 5 ships, few observers expect it to appear on most corporate desktops right away. For one thing, prospective customers will have their hands full with a once-in-a-lifetime (one hopes) hobgoblin: the year 2000 bug. Then, too, many users may sit back and see how buggy the initial release of NT 5 is before committing themselves to it. That's the consensus among users of Windows NT 4.x, who have been subjected to a steady stream of major and minor bug fixes. "We'll try NT 5 after Service Pack 2 or 3," says John W. Naylor Jr., the president of Naylor Engineering, a civil and environmental engineering firm in Lake Panamoka, New York.

All this leaves an important question: What's the right version of Windows to use now? In Microsoft's view, business users who haven't already done so should move to Windows NT 4.0. To make that upgrade more attractive to small and medium-size businesses, the company is offering a copy of NT Workstation 4.0, plus an upgrade to NT 5 when it becomes available, for $276. (NT 4.0 alone sells for $238.)

But realistically, Windows NT 4.0 makes little sense for many PC users. Do you like conveniences such as built-in power management, easy Plug and Play, and wide hardware and software compatibility? Then you should stick with Windows 95 or 98. Besides, NT 4.0 can't be installed directly over Win 95 or 98; the best you can do is install it alongside your old OS, reinstall your apps, and then re-create your personal settings by hand. By contrast, NT 5 will let you upgrade directly from an existing Win 95 or 98 setup, though Microsoft says that moving from NT 4.0 will be simpler. (Users of other versions of Windows are more likely to discover incompatible applications or peripherals when they make the jump.)

One other strike against NT 4.0: It's a poor fit for older PCs (Microsoft's Visse says a Pentium-133 with 64Mb of RAM is a good starting point). Not that NT 5 will thrive on a wimpy system. Though Microsoft hopes to keep the same requirements for it as for NT 4.0, Stu Sjouwerman, editor of the NTools e-mail newsletter, anticipates that users may really need a Pentium II-level PC with at least 128Mb of RAM to enjoy smooth sailing.

But look on the bright side: The longer it takes Microsoft to ship NT 5, the cheaper such powerhouse PCs will become. Maybe there's something to be said for operating system delays after all.

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