Educators generally could play the role of disinterested observers as the world’s largest software maker wrestled with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) over the release of Windows 98.

At least three major factors accounted for that: First, most schools had never planned to be among the first to switch to the new version of Microsoft’s PC operating system (OS). Second, those with plans to buy new hardware right away were protected by guarantees offered by four of the largest computer manufacturers. And, third, many schools were relying on network operating systems rather than on the Windows 98 system designed for stand-alone PCs.

At press time, the battle between Microsoft and antitrust forces in Washington, D.C. and many state capitals was raging without an obvious winner. But to protect prospective customers, at least four major hardware manufacturers have announced free upgrades later if schools and others buy new computers while the release of Windows 98 is still under a regulatory cloud.

The move came as a sought-for agreement began to dissolve between Microsoft and the DOJ. Talks between the two parties broke off over the weekend of May 16 and 17, with each side accusing the other of reneging on previous agreements.

Meanwhile, computer makers scrambled to protect schools and other customers from the hassles that could be caused by lengthy legal entanglements involving the release of Windows 98.

At press time, Microsoft said it was reversing a voluntary freeze on shipments of the operating system to computer manufacturers, and the first wholesale deliveries of the upgrade reportedly began Monday, May 18. A weekend delivery moratorium had been meant to give Microsoft lawyers an 11th-hour opportunity to avoid an antitrust action threatened by DOJ and by attorneys general in at least 20 states.

Windows 98 still was slated for general release to schools and the public at large on June 25.

‘Asking Coke to ship Pepsi’

The operating system (OS) upgrade from Microsoft is supposed to make computing more reliable, speedier, and more internet-friendly than it was with Windows 95. The upgrade is also supposed to come bundled with Internet Explorer, the application Microsoft uses for web browsing. At press time, the DOJ reportedly was demanding that Microsoft install the rival browser from Netscape on the Windows 98 desktop, a demand Microsoft flatly refused. Microsoft said it was akin to asking “Coke to ship three bottles of Pepsi” in every Coke six pack.

The Explorer-only desktop is the epitome of the problem, according to the DOJ and the state attorneys general. Building only Microsoft-brand applications into its popular Windows platform–reportedly installed on more than 90 percent of computers world wide–constitutes unfair competition, the law-enforcement agencies alleged.

Such legal disputes have already severely complicated the impending launch of Windows 98. And Microsoft and it allies claim a lengthy delay in the release of the operating-system upgrade would rock the technology world, threaten the U.S. economy, and generally wreak havoc on computer sellers and buyers. The educators who spoke about this with eSchool News were managing to stay calm.

Schools & Win 98

Educators could afford to remain unruffled, in part because computer makers quickly came up with the means to shield schools from most of the minor headaches that could be caused by a further delay of the Windows upgrade.

At least four manufacturers who aggressively sell to schools–IBM, Gateway, Dell, and Compaq–are making sure you won’t be stuck with computers running on an obsolete operating system a month after you buy them.

They’re all offering free upgrades to Windows 98 for schools and consumers who buy select series between now and when the new operating system will be available.

Schools that buy IBM Aptiva E-series or select ThinkPad systems at IBM-authorized retailers or from IBM Direct Sales between May 1, 1998, and June 30, 1998, can get free upgrades to Windows 98 when it’s released, said a company news release.

“IBM wants to make sure that our customers have peace of mind when they buy our systems,” said Brian Connors, vice president, Aptiva Brand, IBM Consumer Division. “Knowing that the computer you buy today will be able to take full advantage of Windows 98 when it is available–and at no cost–should help deliver that peace of mind.”

Dell is offering a free Windows 98 upgrade to school customers who purchase computers loaded with Windows 95 between April 1 and July 31, 1998, said a Dell representative. Customers must redeem upgrade coupons by October 31, 1998, the company added.

Schools that buy a new computer running Windows 95 will receive a coupon with their purchase for a free upgrade, said Kathy Anderson of Gateway. Mail in the coupon, and Gateway will send you the upgrade on a CD-ROM and will pick up the shipping and handling costs, Anderson said.

Compaq had not released details of its plan for helping schools upgrade, but at press time, a representative of the company’s education group said Compaq would be doing so shortly.

NT next?

George Warren, K-12 marketing manager for Dell, said he doesn’t think schools will be severely affected by any further delay in the release of Windows 98. It takes from six months to a year after the initial release before the education market jumps into a new operating system, he explained. “Schools didn’t flock to Windows 95, but most everyone switched out by nine months,” Warren estimated. This upgrade won’t be as difficult for schools as, for example, the bigger leap from Windows 3.1 to Windows 95, he added.

Some school technology directors say they’ll bypass Windows 98 entirely, waiting instead for the upgrade to Windows NT, Microsoft’s high-powered operating system that runs workstations and network servers. So far, NT–which reportedly has captured about half of the school server market–has escaped legal scrutiny.

Analysts are predicting, however, that NT is likely to become the next high-profile target for DOJ antitrust investigations. Microsoft already has announced plans to succeed Windows 98 with NT-based technology.


U.S. Department of Justice

IBM K-12 Education

Dell Computer Co.