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Last Updated: Tuesday, 11 July 2006, 06:54 GMT 07:54 UK
Windows 98 offers history lessons
By Mark Ward
Technology correspondent, BBC News website

Windows 98 on production line, AP
The production lines for Windows 98 stopped in 2001
Microsoft has ended its support for the estimated 70 million users of operating system Windows 98. What was it like to use a computer back in 1998?

Visionary science fiction writer William Gibson once wrote: "The future is here. It's just not widely distributed yet".

By that he meant that technologies which re-make our lives tend to appear in small patches before they spread, connect and engulf everyone in a tidal wave of change.

The flipside of his observation is that the past has not entirely departed either. There are places where it stubbornly persists.

Visiting these places gives us a chance to see if predictions about how technology and the world would interact, came true.

Time travel

A perfect opportunity to visit the past and check our visions of the future has arisen with Microsoft's decision to end support for Windows 98.

By re-installing it on an old PC we can see what the future looked like eight years ago and check our progress.

For this time travelling I used an old Gateway PC that has a PIII 450 Intel chip onboard, 384MB Ram and a four gigabyte hard drive.

Installing Windows 98 was straight-forward and hints of the changes it brought in were evident from the start.

Bill Gates at launch of IE 4.0, AP
Launched in 1997, IE 4.0 is now obsolete
One of the splash screens that popped up while the software was installing said: "With Windows 98 you can connect to the Internet quickly and easily", another started: "If you have Internet access...".

Both point up the fact that in 1998, consumers were only just starting to go online in big numbers. It was when the dotcom boom was just starting to be heard. At that time about 36 million web hosts were registered - today there are almost 400 million of them.

Although it was possible to use the net with Windows 95, it was in Windows 98 that Microsoft started to tie the operating system much more closely to its Internet Explorer browser.

With Windows 98 it became possible to view directories as a web page and to navigate between locations using the same keys as you do to go back and forth when browsing the net.

Net gains

Despite Microsoft's claims that Windows 98 makes using the net easier, finding a browser that worked with the raw operating system was a challenge.

Unfortunately, it's the nature of the industry and Windows 98 has had its day
Simon Neale

Internet Explorer 4.0 is now obsolete and it proved impossible to download a newer version of the browser from the Microsoft site using the old software.

The only browser I could get working straight off was Opera - once I had that working updating other components got easier.

But most striking about the Windows 98 desktop on a fresh installation was the large floating bar down the right-hand side that brought together links to more than 35 so-called "channels" through which relevant net content was supposed to be piped.

Phone jack, Eyewire
When Windows 98 launched, most net users were on dial-up
Some channels were run by companies such as Disney, Warner Brothers and AOL but others were arranged around categories such as news and entertainment.

The idea was that the channel partners would prepare special content that would be "pushed" out to users. Prominent among the list of channel partners is PointCast - one of the bright stars of the early dotcom days but which shut down its "push" system in 1999 due to lack of interest.

Clicking on the channels opened up a full screen where the content would be aired.

At the time it was thought that the net was going to become more like TV and viewers/users would tune in to those channels of interest.

Now, eight years on, none of the channels are active. At best clicking on the links to channel partners re-directs to the homepage of the company involved - such as Forbes, or ZDNet. At worst clicking crashed the browser.

This vision of content "pushed" to users is one that has not been fulfilled - at least not entirely. "Push" has some parallels with RSS with one big difference. RSS is all about you choosing what you want to see rather than have it "pushed" to you whether you want it or not.

And perhaps this reveals the big difference between the visions of 1998 and the reality of today. Back then big players thought they would be in control of the net and dispense it to users.

But now its real power is being revealed in the communities it brings together and the information it gives them so they can make better choices.

And it is William Gibson that gives an insight into why this might be. "The street," he has written, "finds its own uses for things."

Microsoft warns users to be cautious

Microsoft shuts down Windows 98
11 Jul 06 |  Technology
Windows 98 wins support lifeline
13 Jan 04 |  Technology
Microsoft abandons older Windows
16 Dec 03 |  Technology
Viewers start to tune in online
04 Feb 05 |  Technology
'Podcasters' look to net money
25 Mar 05 |  Technology
Turning the web into 'sushi belts'
11 Apr 05 |  Technology

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