IF you use a personal computer, chances are you are going to want to know what Bill Gates is offering you today. And if you are one of the many who have installed Microsoft's Windows 3.1, you will almost certainly need to buy Microsoft's Windows 95. In fact, the way things are going in computer-land these days, just about everyone should probably at least grasp the basics of the new system. There are more than 100 million personal computers (PCs) in the world and software made by Microsoft controls the operating systems of 80 per cent of them. As new information and entertainment products are brought to market, they will increasingly demand the most up-to-date operating systems. And even companies which continue to rely on big central processing computers to run their operations also use big PC networks for administration. Many of these use Windows. Some companies will update immediately, while many others will wait for any bugs to be ironed out of the new system. So, if you have never used Windows, or continue to use Windows 3.1 after today's launch of Windows 95, you run the risk of feeling outdated, left behind, and definitely not part of the information age. Windows 95 will clear up your monitor screen, doing away with many of the existing command lines and boxes in favour of pictures - a so-called 'graphic interface'. This is another way of saying that Windows 95, like the earlier version, tries to create the 'point and click' user-friendly, icon-based environment made popular by Macintosh on its Apple machines. But whereas Windows 3.1 only went part of the way, using icons as a reference point and forcing users through a file manager routine, Windows 95 goes much further. All the effort by Microsoft's programming teams has resulted in a product which is much easier to use than its predecessor. It can do more than one task at once - multi-tasking - and users will no longer have to limit file names to eight characters. Windows 95 users will need to learn phrases like 'cutting and pasting' and 'dragging and dropping' because they are part of the new format which does away with the need for complex keyboard commands. A video out from Corporate Communications Systems, Fastrack to Windows 95, leads viewers through the new operating system. The similarities to the Apple Macintosh screen are stunning - Microsoft has even called its mini applications in the system 'Applets'. 'Take a good look at the screen,' the voice in the video says. 'The icons are now the object.' The viewer, like the Windows 95 user, sees a remarkably uncluttered screen with a few icons and a title bar running along the bottom of the screen. With the old Windows 3.1, an icon was representative of a file, but with Windows 95, as the video explains, 'the object is the file'. Dragging an icon moves the file from folder to folder, while deleting the icon deletes the file. Various commands, most accomplished by pointing and clicking with the mouse, can find out the file's history and contents, open, close, edit or move it. 'Everything on your desktop is an object,' the video says. On the screen is an animated office scene. Suddenly, the camera zooms in on the virtual desk. The voice continues: 'Your coffee mug, for example, has certain properties which describe what it is like, when and how it was created and where it is located on your desk top. It can be moved, or even duplicated like all the objects on your desk.' So it is with the icons on the Windows 95 screen. There is a lot going on within the system, but the user is spared a lot of the complexity which went along with the old system. But all this simplicity comes at a cost to users of all but the most modern PCs. Owners of low-powered PCs or those with small memory capacities will need to upgrade, either by upgrading their existing PCs or replacing them. Powerful PC models which far outstrip Windows 95's minimum specifications can be bought for under $20,000, while extra memory costs about $300 per megabyte (MB) of random access memory, or RAM. PC prices are on a long-term downward trend as manufacturing technology improves and old models make way for new. Today, for example, Compaq, the world leader in PC sales, is expected to announce a 20 per cent price cut on its popular Presario range. IBM and Packard Bell also recently announced price cuts. Windows 95 is demanding on PC memory and hard disk storage space. This was probably to be expected from a state-of-the-art operating system. In the language of computer programmers, Windows 95 contains 11 million lines of code compared with the three million in Windows 3.1. Although Microsoft says the system will work on PCs based on the old 386DX chip with four MB of RAM, most reviewers say the programs run far too slowly and recommend far faster machines with eight to 16 MB of RAM. Microsoft says users will need a PC with a 386DX processor or above. The company says Windows 95 will work with four MB of RAM but it recommends at least eight. Some users will need to add between 30 and 60 MB of hard disk space, depending on whether they are planning to use the plain Windows 95 product or opt for add-on features. All this is great news for the accessory shops as people flock to upgrade or buy new PCs to accommodate the new system. For many people with older machines, it might make more sense to buy a new one rather than upgrade with new components. Many potential PC customers have been holding off buying a PC until the release of Windows 95 as many manufacturers will be offering bundled packages which include the software in the PC. A CD-ROM player, already considered a necessity by many users to get the most out of a PC, is even more appropriate for those installing Windows 95. Without a CD-ROM, installation involves dealing with no less than 13 floppy disks. Pirating is likely to be as great a problem with Windows 95 as it has been with every other popular software item. Illegal copies are already available in Hong Kong, but these have been made from early test versions - Beta copies - which software companies release with the specific purpose of finding bugs. The industry's legal action force - the Business Software Alliance, of which Microsoft is a member - has warned that buyers of fakes, as well as breaking the law, risk infection from viruses and miss out on the support and service which buyers of the real thing can expect. If you work in an office which has PCs which use Windows 3.1, your company will almost certainly need Windows 95. It amounts to a major product upgrade for companies, and there will be a significant cost, even with Microsoft's bulk purchase discounts, because of the need to train staff and upgrade some equipment. Many companies will hold off the upgrade until any problems with the new system have been sorted out. For a product which contains the innovations and advantages it offers, Windows 95 is something of a bargain. Recommended retail in Hong Kong is $799, slightly above the US price of between US$89 and $100. And don't worry about finding out where to buy the new product. Since the first copies went on sale at Star House at midnight, it has gone on sale at all the usual software outlets and KPS stores. With all the hype that has surrounded the launch, Microsoft is bound to have ensured sufficient stocks.