Which Windows? Product Line Gets Blurry at Microsoft

WILL the real Microsoft Corp. operating system please stand up?

Everybody knows that Microsoft makes the leading software to run desktop computers. But many companies wonder whether to buy Windows 95, the new version of Microsoft's bestselling software, or use Windows NT, the hardier high-end operating system.

Some customers say even Microsoft has given mixed signals lately about the boundary line between the two products, which once was sharper.

''Some of them are a little upset,'' says Jesse Berst of Windows Watcher, a newsletter in Microsoft's backyard, Redmond, Wash. Many aren't buying either one.

''We're mostly on 3.1 [the precursor of Windows 95],'' says Phillip Gannon, senior vice president of Century Bank in Boston. The bank has tried Windows 95 on a few machines and has not been thrilled. Among other things, he says interaction with the bank's mainframe computer poses problems.

''If NT comes out better, fine,'' Mr. Gannon says, referring to the coming update of that software, expected in the middle of this year. But if that doesn't work out, he may wait even longer.

Mr. Berst says he expects the two versions of Windows, now far apart technologically, to grow more alike over the years, but not to merge. One (NT) will be for businesses and one for casual home users, he predicts. But for now, ''Windows 95 has some tough competition,'' he says. The good news for the company: ''That competition comes from Microsoft itself.''

The software giant could be hurt, however, if potential customers are left too confused to buy.

Microsoft has tried to position Windows 95 as its mainstream product and Windows NT for users who need very rugged systems.

''I think that that issue [of product-line confusion] has been built up by the press,'' says analyst Jon Oltsik of Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass. ''Microsoft has made the decision pretty clear.''

Any mixed signals have come from Microsoft sales representatives, not the corporation itself, he says.

Forrester's own advice to clients, Mr. Oltsik says, is that for perhaps 90 percent of corporate users, ''Windows 95 is the appropriate choice.''

But many potential customers don't see it as an easy decision. A phone survey by Information Week of 100 information-systems managers recently found 39 percent planning to move to Windows 95, 24 percent opting for Windows NT, and 28 percent unsure. The coming NT upgrade will blur the lines by making the on-screen appearance of NT similar to Windows 95.

Windows NT requires more computer memory than Windows 95 does. But many newer computers are powerful enough to run either.

The high-end product is often promoted for users who need high security and reliability. Ideal customers for NT are financial firms and engineers, analysts say. By making this move, those customers will sacrifice some of their ability to run software designed for the mainstream versions of Windows.

Even if Microsoft clearly delineates its product line, Mr. Berst says, it must do better at making the two operating systems work easily with each other. Microsoft has urged software firms to make their products run on either system. But this has proven hard enough that Microsoft backed down on the effort.

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