Hobby 95/98 - Part 4

by Wayne M. Krakau - Chicago Computer Guide, August 1999
Here’s the fourth and last in my series on my least favorite hobby, the upkeep of Windows 95 and Windows 98. Since word on the street is that, contrary to previous announcements, Microsoft is preparing two more versions of Windows 98, this hobby could still be quite common for several years to come.

One of the most common problems I see is the gradual corruption of Windows 95 due to the improper application of patches. (I must plead guilty to having done this more than once before I caught on.) Unlike patches for Windows 98, Windows 95 patches are inherently dumb, and will happily overwrite perfectly good files with inappropriate ones. You must read the on-screen instructions very carefully, and print them prior to download, since most of these files don’t have internal README or other explanatory files. Even then, many don’t have complete descriptions of their limitations.

The nastiest of these poorly documented limitations has to do with Windows 95 Operating System Release 2 (OSR2). OSR2 is the version of Windows 95 that came bundled with the vast majority of computers that have Windows 95.

According to three different sources within Microsoft’s Tech Support, OSR2 already has ALL of the communications-related patches within it and most of the other patches as well. There are very few patches which should be applied to this release. The Windows 95 patches you find on Microsoft’s Web Site are almost exclusively meant only for the original version of Windows 95, OSR1. That version came bundled with computers prior to the release of OSR2 and also all in separately purchased copies. OSR2 has never been available at retail. It was only available bundled with new computers.

Note that all three of the Tech Support personal that I talked to, as well as those who answer questions in Microsoft’s Tech Support Forums denied having access to a comprehensive list of what patches were appropriate for which version of Windows 95/98, or any detailed information about what combinations individual communications-related files were valid. They could only offer to walk me through fixing individual systems at $35 a pop.

Before fixing this problem, locate the WINSOCK.DLL file in the \WINDOWS directory and search the \WINDOWS\SYSTEM directory for any files with "SOCK" as part of their names and you’ll find the communications-related files in question. When these get out of synch, the most common symptoms are randomly losing both the printing and the "SAVE AS" functions within your browser. Once lost, these functions stay lost until at least until you shut down your browser and reestablish your communications with the Internet. Sometimes you are forced to reboot, too.

When this condition is at its worst, all browsers will simultaneously lose functions. In a less severe version, Internet Explorer loses functions, but you can start up a Netscape session and keep on saving and printing.

Another common symptom that occurs much more frequently than the browser problems strikes only America Online (AOL) users. They lose the ability to print their e-mail messages. Sometimes even rebooting doesn’t help that one.

A solution that has worked for me (found by combining the advice obtained during the three separate Microsoft Tech Support calls previously alluded to with info gathered from my own experimentation), is to try to get all of the SOCK files except for WSOCK32N.DLL to the same date as they originally were. Extract files from the cabinet files (*.CAB) on the original Windows 95 CD, if necessary. For WSOCK32N.DLL, keep the latest version that you find on your computer. You may have to experiment a bit to find a combination of communications files that works, since some of the files you find may have originally come from patches or other programs.

Your experiments may come to naught, however, unless you know the magic process that completes the fix. Without it, you might alter the frequency of the problems, but you won’t actually stop them. This is particularly insidious if you correctly determine the combination of SOCK files that should work. In that case the problems will occur less frequently, but will keep coming back to haunt you.

The solution is to toast the young farm animal of your choice on an altar adorned with the likeness of Bill Gates. What? You say that your religious or ethical convictions forbid such ceremonies? All right. I’ll let you in on the alternate procedure. Delete and reinstall your default printer. That’s the key process that is needed to make your file manipulations truly take effect. Don’t just switch to another printer as the default and then switch back. You must delete the printer. Hey, I never said this stuff was either easy or obvious.

An important preventative measure for Windows 95/98 problems is to use a disk imaging product to take a snapshot of the hard disk. This option is available for either those computers attached to a LAN or those with enough local auxiliary storage to hold a compressed duplicate of their disk drives. With the licensing options available for quantity purchases for a LAN, imaging software can be quite inexpensive.

This type of software allows you to take a snapshot of your disk prior to installing some software or making some other change to Windows 95/98. It’s also a good idea to make a baseline copy occasionally to cover you in case some program makes unannounced changes to the Windows 95/98, a process that is, sadly, becoming more common. If Windows 95/98 starts misbehaving, just back up your changeable data files (documents, spreadsheets, databases, etc.) and then restore the image file. Once you put your data back, you got a stable system.

Yet another stability assuring tool is Novell’s Z.E.N.works Starter Pack. It comes bundled with NetWare 5 and is downloadable for those with NetWare 4.x. Z.E.N.works stands for Zero Effort Networks, one of the more grandiose product name in computing. The Starter Pack version is free. You have to pay if you want the complete Z.E.N.works version, but the Starter Pack version has enough features to make it worthwhile for both Windows 95/98 users and NT users.

Z.E.N.works Starter Pack allows you to automatically repair applications, so that a missing, corrupted, or version-switched program file won’t cause a crash. The product monitors the original installation of a program to detect all of the files that the program needs to run. It then stores a copy of those files on the server.

When an individual workstation is about to experience a crash due to the aforementioned problems, Z.E.N.works steps in and replaces the appropriate files from its storehouse on the server, thereby allowing the application to continue running normally after only a slight delay. That means one less unsatisfied user and one less call to a harried system administrator.

Another valuable feature of Z.E.N.works Starter Pack is its ability to ease management of the desktops across the network. You can force standardized configurations to the desktop based on both computer and user ID. You can also restrict access to many potentially dangerous aspects of Windows 95/98 and NT. (Think of it as a greatly enhanced version of Windows 95/98 Policy Editor.) Obviously, this trick only works in companies where these restrictions are politically feasible. (Didn’t the French Revolution start this way?)

My final suggestion is to look at upgrading to Windows 98 Second Edition (SE). While it’s not perfectly stable, at $19.95 for Windows 98 users and $109 for Windows 95 and Windows 3.x users, it might be a lot cheaper than spending a lot of time either debugging Windows 95/98 or reinstalling from scratch. The mere act of applying the upgrade over a previous version of Windows 95 or 98 might be enough to eliminate errors due to the gradual corruption of the overall configuration of the operating system. If you think of the upgrade as merely a stability-enhancing tool as opposed to the creator of a perfectly stable environment, the decision to upgrade might be a bit more palatable.

Now I’m going to count the gray hairs that I’ve gotten trying to keep Windows 95/98 systems alive and kicking. I am anxiously awaiting future versions of Windows 98 and of the Workstation version of Windows 2000 in the hope that I won’t have to worry so much about workstation stability in the future.

�1999, Wayne M. Krakau