WINDOWS is finally getting a major overhaul.
Computer junkies have long complained that Microsoft Corporation's flagship program isn't as easy to use as Apple Computer's Macintosh software. Both programs manage a computer's basic functions and aim to create a pleasing graphical environment on the screen. But the companies pursued different strategies: Where Apple kept its software only for use in its own machines, Microsoft sold to any and every hardware manufacturer.
The latter strategy was successful, and now, as Apple belatedly explores licensing its Macintosh software, Microsoft is poised to close the performance gap. Software specialists see much to like in the new version of Windows, code-named ``Chicago:''
* Users will now be able to write longer names for their files -
up to 255 characters per file - and therefore can describe the contents of a document with real words rather than a cryptic handful of letters.
* The computer will be able to run more than one application program at a time. For example, a user could be receiving a fax on the computer while simultaneously typing a document.
* A ``plug and play'' feature allows the computer to sense what brands of equipment are hooked up to it and adjust itself accordingly.
* The program will have strong support for networking, including for navigating the Internet, the dial-in network.
The new Windows also is designed for compatibility with its precursors, including the DOS software that underlies current versions of Windows.
Chicago, or Windows 4.0, is expected to become widely available in spring 1995. Coming on the heels of a recent Justice Department antitrust investigation that was favorable for Microsoft, the software promises to further solidify the company's industry dominance.
But competitors of the Redmond, Wash., company are not all giving up without a fight. Last week, two of its biggest and fiercest foes - Apple Computer and IBM Corporation - showed off their own upcoming software from a joint venture called Taligent. No one expects the Taligent software, which is aimed at sophisticated business customers, to go head-to-head with Windows in the mass-market for small-time computer users. It's not even classified as an ``operating system'' like Windows.
What the joint venture does offer is impressive use of ``object-oriented programming,'' which allows programmers to save time by creating applications software out of reusable building blocks rather than starting from scratch. Taligent officials last week touted what they call an ``applications environment'' that will provide these modular building blocks on a variety of operating systems that compete with Windows, such as IBM's OS/2, Macintosh, and a version of the Unix system put out by Hewlett Packard (the third member of the consortium).
Taligent chief Joe Guglielmi said the product ``is poised to become the industry standard application system'' for business enterprises, where the ability to quickly develop new applications is a competitive advantage.
Microsoft, hoping to carve out its own piece of the lucrative business market, is working on object-oriented technology of its own, but one that is more narrowly focused. ``Taligent has a much more pure solution,'' says Brent Williams, an analyst with International Data Corporation.
Even as Microsoft strives to push upward from personal computer software into enterprise computing, Taligent or similar technology may start creeping downward, competing with Windows. Rikki Kirzner, an analyst with Dataquest, says object-oriented technology will filter down only ``when we see a lot more young people graduate from college with a solid background in using these tools'' - not before the end of the decade.
She says Taligent was wise to go with the ``applications environment'' rather than creating a whole new operating system, since companies are loathe to abandon their investments of time and money in existing systems.