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June 8, 1998

While the industry debates innovation, readers discover the secrets of Windows 98

There's been a lot of talk lately about "innovation" in the computer industry. Microsoft doesn't want the government to stop it from marketing any products it wants to in connection with Windows because it might chill the company's capability to innovate. Smaller companies don't want Microsoft to be able to include other software with Windows for free because it would put them out of business, eliminating their incentive to innovate.

The concept of innovation is a key idea that we'll look at in the next few weeks. Since my May 25 column, in which I invited readers to send me secrets they've found about upgrading to Microsoft's latest innovation, Windows 98, I've received numerous excellent tips. (See "It's time to watch out for bugs, tips, and secrets for Windows 98.") Keep them coming; use the subject line "upgrade secrets" in your e-mail.

A unique look at software innovation was provided recently by Greg James in a letter to the editor published prominently by both the Seattle Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the two largest dailies in Microsoft Town. James is the owner of a software company that competes (successfully, James says) with Bill Gates' Corbis venture in selling CD-ROMs of fine art. In his letter, he wrote:

"It would do people well to remember that Microsoft (for all its power and size) has never had a major success that was truly its own idea. It bought the original operating system [DOS] from another computer company, it copied Apple for its Windows operating system, it copied Lotus 1-2-3 and came up with Excel, it ripped off Netscape's idea for a Web browser, it came out with Word after WordPerfect, and so on and so forth. On the other side of the coin, when you look at all its own ideas or products (ones that have to stand on their own two feet) you have a different story: Bob, MSN, Slate, Mungo Park, and most of their entertainment products have been huge flops ... .

"An obvious pattern has emerged: If the idea is taken from someone else and assisted by or bundled with its operating system monopoly, it works. If it is an original idea and isn't supported by the monopoly, it fails (usually miserably)," James continued.

In its defense, Microsoft has some very skilled people who have brought out some very useful products. But James' chronology of Microsoft successes that have benefited from someone else's breakthroughs -- and failures that were Microsoft originals -- is thought-provoking. There are many examples of cases in which Microsoft has used hidden features of its OS to give its own applications an advantage over those of competitors. (A few examples were in my May 25 column, with more described at length in a special 1992 InfoWorld report.) Ideally, smaller companies should be able to innovate without fear that their work will eventually be absorbed for free into Windows.

I'm glad to report that readers are having positive experiences upgrading to Windows 98 (with those versions that are available). Ron Stykel points out that not only did Windows 98 respect his choice of Netscape Navigator as his default browser, but Navigator even runs better. A beta Web site that Navigator would not work with, but Internet Explorer would, works perfectly with Navigator under Win98, with no change in the site. Let's hope all changes are this beneficial.

Reader Larry Passo has already found a work-around for an irritating "feature" of Win98. He says if you don't register Win98 using its Online Registration Wizard, you can't later use its new Update Wizard to find out if there are any patches for Win98. Now that's an innovative way to get people to register! He's developed a way to get the Upgrade Wizard to work, whether you've registered or not. I'll describe this in detail next week.

Windows 98 Secrets launches

For those of you who will be using Win98 on new PCs (on which it will soon be standard) or older ones, I'm pleased to announce that Windows 98 Secrets (with 1,200 pages of secrets) went on sale in U.S. bookstores June 5. For information, see Readers Stykel and Passo will receive free copies for being the first to send me Win98 tips printed here.

Brian Livingston is the co-author of several best-selling Windows books, including the most recent Windows 95 Secrets (IDG Books). Send comments to Unfortunately, he cannot answer individual questions.

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