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July 27, 1998

Microsoft's take on Windows 98: It doesn't harm competitors

For the past two weeks, my columns have discussed the fact that when you install Windows 98, its setup routine examines your hard disk for shared system files -- such as DLLs -- that have been installed on your system by applications. The setup routine may find files that are newer than files of the same name contained on the Win98 CD-ROM. If so, it moves your system's shared files to a different location and replaces them with older versions from the Win98 CD.

In my July 13 column I wrote that this "deliberately disables files used by competitors' software." Last week, I described how to use a shareware utility to determine which applications are dependent on the shared files. You can use Win98's Version Conflict Manager to restore the newer files.

These two columns were based on lengthy telephone interviews and e-mail exchanges with Microsoft officials. Since then, I've had even more extensive discussions with them -- and Microsoft sharply disagrees with my interpretation of the facts.

This week, I present Microsoft officials' point of view, as they see the situation.

Microsoft representatives strongly emphasize that Windows 98 does nothing to harm any competitor. Shawn Sanford, a Win98 product manager, said Microsoft's extensive beta testing did not reveal a single application that is harmed by Win98's switching to an older version of a shared file.

Far from a desire to give Microsoft any advantage over other software companies, the spokesmen said, the decision to have the setup routine change files was made only to ensure that users had a stable, working copy of Win98 after installation. One of the biggest complaints from users, they said, was that the system crashed or would not boot due to conflicts between Windows and other programs.

The worst case, Sanford said, was that a video driver or other shared file could make Win98 fail to boot. If this occurred, a user would have no way to reconfigure Windows to fix the error. To prevent this, Win98 installs file versions known to work.

Sanford said, "There is a very, very small possibility that a sequence of DLLs could hurt Windows 98." But even a small possibility could affect thousands of users, so it was better to have Win98 establish a known set of shared files, even if some were older than those installed by other applications.

"By down-leveling in that situation," Sanford said, "users can get into the operating system and adjust the drivers they need."

Sanford added that Microsoft doesn't have a list of applications that install files that would interfere with Windows 98, but that "our apps test guys are actually going through all their stuff now to find some examples."

I don't yet have a list of which applications Win98's behavior interferes with, either. (I'll print such a list when available.)

Microsoft officials and I agreed on an overall goal for Windows stability. Ideally, Windows would prevent any applications from adding or changing files in the Windows or System folders. This way, the functions of all system files would be predictable and applications could not change a DLL, possibly breaking Windows or another application.

In fact, Sanford said, it has been Microsoft's policy since the release of Windows 95 that third-party vendors should not install updated, shared files into the System folder. Developers have continued to do so, however. Win98's installation of known, shared files may put this practice to a halt.

Next week, I'll print readers' responses to this controversy.

Brian Livingston's latest book is Windows 98 Secrets (IDG Books). Send tips to He regrets that he cannot answer individual questions.

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