A Software Junkie Rejects Windows 98
By Stewart Alsop

(FORTUNE Magazine) – I'm not going to upgrade to Windows 98. There, I said it. Now that I've said it, maybe I can actually get myself not to install it!

I am a software junkie. Ever since I got my first Apple II computer to work in 1981, on through the first of many Macintoshes in 1985, and even after my conversion to Windows machines in 1996, I've always installed the latest version of any piece of software I used. Actually, I've installed any version of any software I could get my hands on, whether I needed to use it or not. I wanted to see if it worked. I wanted to be cool. I wanted to know everything. I am a junkie. I need software.

That's the secret of America's worldwide leadership in software: We're a nation of junkies. No disrespect to my readers in other countries, but the truth is that Americans like buying software in a way that's materially different. We consume the stuff. We love software!

This addiction has been fed by the PC software industry ever since the VisiCalc spreadsheet was invented for the Apple II in 1979. Hundreds of companies have created cool programs, gotten us to take a bite, and madly revised and upgraded the software to feed our addiction and generate profits. It's no mistake that just two industries consistently call their customers users: software and illegal drugs.

Computer columnists always drone on that we never use more than 25% or 40% or 60% (you name the percentage) of the features in a particular application, saying that this proves the designers were out of touch with customers. It's the columnists who are out of touch. In most cases, customers asked for those features. They may not use them, but it's comforting for addicts to know their programs have a lot in reserve. I believe one of the reasons Microsoft is so dominant is that almost alone among software makers, it understands the dynamic of software addiction. It understands that this addiction is not rational--that we demand functionality and depth before quality and workmanship. So Microsoft has been responding to customers by building really muscular programs that don't work perfectly but get the job done.

Lately, though, I've begun to think we may be losing our lust for PC software. If this is true, then maybe we should worry about whether there's any real life left in software, even for a monopoly.

This feeling really took hold as I started reading reviews of Windows 98, which became available just recently. The reviewers' bottom line? Windows 98 is not worth the hassle.

Upgrading to a new version of any program is always a risk. At a minimum--even if the software works as advertised and doesn't have killer bugs--we know we're going to have to learn new ways to do things we've already learned to do. For instance, certain features of Windows 95 really tick me off on a regular basis. And I know Microsoft is smart enough to fix the features that really tick me and everyone else off. Many of its fixes will actually improve the way Windows works. But I also know from previous upgrades that the old ways will still work, which means that I have to spend time keeping track of which of Windows' changes I like and which I don't like. I can think of more productive ways to spend my time.

Look, I know I'll upgrade sooner or later. Within a month or so, almost every new PC will be shipping with Windows 98. So the next time I buy a computer, I'll get Windows 98 whether I like it or not. (I've got my eye on a honey of a little computer from Sony called the VAIO SuperSlim Notebook.) But Windows 98 will have been installed and made to work with that computer before I get it. So the only issue is whether I upgrade to a new version on the machine I use right now. And that's what I'm choosing not to do.

The only truly new thing about Windows 98 is that it sports a completely integrated Internet Explorer, Microsoft's World Wide Web browser. Now the system's help files are formatted as Web pages and displayed in Internet Explorer. And the files and folders on my hard drive can now be seen as icons and lists in Internet Explorer. All this is intended to make Windows feel more consistent, both while you're using local software and while surfing the World Wide Web. And thanks to a recent appeals court ruling, the Windows 98 launch should proceed unimpeded by the Department of Justice.

The problem is that the reviews of Windows 98 say that all the changes won't provide me with any major benefit. Indeed, I've read pretty consistently that the only way to improve on Windows 95 is to wait for Windows NT Workstation 5.0, due to arrive late this year or early next. NT has a different operating system under the hood. And that really does make a difference: NT crashes less frequently, works better with several different programs at once, and lets developers create better programs. Microsoft itself has admitted that NT Workstation is the real future of Windows, and that it would rather have businesses switch to NT, because it works better and is easier to support. Indeed, I even remember hearing a Microsoft executive wish out loud that the company could just not even introduce Windows 98, because it distracts everybody from Windows NT and slows the process of switching to a better system. Of course, once the Department of Justice rattled its sword, Microsoft had to introduce Windows 98 just to prove that it is still in charge of its destiny.

But I'm a software junkie, aren't I? I'm not supposed to care whether Windows 98 is a worthwhile improvement or not. That kind of thinking hasn't stopped me in the past. So why am I suddenly feeling this isn't worth it?

That's a pretty interesting question. I think I became addicted to software because I always believed there was something new that could transform part of my life. Software is far too complicated for one to be completely rational about it. You treat software the way computers treat you: It's either on or off; it's binary. If there's something new to be had, you always upgrade. If there isn't, you don't.

And I am pretty happy with what my computer does for me. Sure, I bitch and moan. But my four-pound hunk of metal and bits allows me to do any of my work anywhere. My programs do everything I could imagine wanting to do. I've got every program I can imagine wanting.

So what's happened? Well, all I can figure is that at some point in the past year, new PC software went from being something inescapably cool to something more akin to buying a new car. Remember Microsoft's claim that delaying shipment of Windows 98 would damage the economy? They compared it with the government's telling GM that it couldn't introduce a new model year of cars. I don't know about you, but I don't buy a new car every year--there isn't enough new stuff to make it worthwhile. So if Windows 98 is the software equivalent of a new model year, maybe I'll just wait for Windows NT Workstation.

Of course, the question that immediately raises is, What if no one upgrades to Windows 98? How many other rehabilitating software junkies are out there?

STEWART ALSOP is a partner with New Enterprise Associates, a venture capital firm. Except as noted, neither he nor his partnership has a financial interest in the companies mentioned. Alsop may be reached at stewart_alsop@fortunemail.com