By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 1998, The Syracuse Newspapers
Microsoft's software engineers were still adding features to the fancy new version of Windows in late 1994 when they were told to cool it. They were late, and the new version, which was introduced as Windows 95 many months latger, would have to be sold without some of the extras the engineers were working on.
And that's how the immensely popular Plus! software package was born. In Microsoft Plus!, the Windows engineers had a chance to put back many of the features their bosses took out. Incredible as it seems now, those "extras" included the software that connects Windows PCs to the Internet—yes, that's right, Windows 95 didn't have that built in at first. And the "extras" included other functions such as font smoothing and high-speed disk compression that clearly could have been built into the basic Windows 95 setup.
But as embarrassing as it may have been for Microsoft to ask customers to finish building Windows 95 themselves by installing Plus!, consumers didn't seem to mind. If you wanted to use Desktop Themes, DriveSpace 3, the System Agent, 256-color icons, font smoothing, full-window dragging and a dozen other features—including, of course, the basic ability to connect to the Internet—you paid $40 for Microsoft Plus!.
Times have changed in Redmond, the Seattle suburb that is home to Microsoft. Windows 98, which was officially introduced 10 days ago, doesn't need a Plus! pack to bring it up to modern standards. It's full of features, including most of the ones that were sold in the separate Plus! pack three years ago.
So why is Microsoft now selling a $35 CD called Plus! 98?
To make money, mostly. Except for one feature, nothing in Plus! 98 is essential. You don't need it.
The single essential feature is a suite of anti-virus programs from McAfee. No PC should be without virus protection, and you could justify the cost of Plus! 98 on the AV functions alone. (You get a free upgrade to a later version of McAfee AV, too.)
Everything else on the Plus! 98 CD is fluff. But it's wonderful fluff.
You'll find three games, Golf 1998 Lite, Lose Your Marbles and Spider Solitaire, that take advantage of the advanced graphics capabilities in Windows 98. They're both fun and easy to play.
You'll discover some amazingly clever screen savers—including new versions of my all-time favorites, the Organic Arts screen savers, which create 3D creatures and otherworldly objects that float and twist in front of you.
You'll have an easy-to-use photo editor called Picture-I! Express—Microsoft seems to like exclamation points this year—and a large collection of Desktop Themes. My favorite theme is World Traveler, which cycles through specially enhanced pictures of deserts, canyons, valleys and other landscapes whenever the screen saver kicks in.
Are these essential? Of course not. But they're fun.
Another item in Plus! 98 that might be fascinating for music lovers is the Deluxe CD Player, which, like many other new software-based CD players, is able to locate information on a CD it is playing from an Internet database.
Plus 98! Also comes with a stripped-down version of Zip Folders, licensed from Mijenix. Microsoft called it Compressed Folders. It turns Zip files into folders, so you never have to unzip them. It lacks most of the features of a far better product from Mijenix called Zip Magic. (If you already use Zip Folders or Zip Magic, don't let Plus! 98 install Compressed Folders.)
Is Plus! 98 worth buying? Sure. Unlike the earlier version of Plus!, you don't need it to bring your operating system up to date, but you'll enjoy the games, the themes and the screen savers. If your boss or spouse balks at the cost, just say you've bought a new anti-virus program.