Windows 95 vs 98 didn’t seem like a very big deal to me in 1998-1999. With nearly 20 years of hindsight, I still don’t really think it’s a big deal. Here are the differences between Windows 95 and Windows 98.
It really helps to consider the whole product line. Windows 9x as a whole was really four years of incremental improvements.
Windows 95 started it all. It was late to market, promised a lot, and mostly delivered. But the version Microsoft finally released on August 24, 1995 was less ambitious overall than what they intended. It was mostly 32-bit and delivered pre-emptive multitasking like Windows NT, and ended up being a huge hit.
Windows 95OSR2 was the second release of Windows 95, from 1996. It was only available by purchasing a motherboard or a new system. It had a few bug fixes and one major new feature: the FAT32 filesystem, which made better use of large hard drives. It also included Internet Explorer as a non-optional component. You couldn’t uninstall it, though you could hack an INI file prior to installation to leave it out.
Internet Explorer didn’t come with the original Windows 95, and it initially wasn’t free. Microsoft included it in the extra-cost Plus Pack.
The most visible thing Windows 98 did was integrate the operating system more tightly with Internet Explorer. This was a benefit to Microsoft, Intel, and manufacturers of computer memory, not to consumers. It drove people to retire systems a year early and get something with a faster CPU and more memory in it. Microsoft’s goal with the integration was to bring a web-like experience to the whole operating system. And Microsoft bet (correctly) that if people got used to that, they would use Internet Explorer rather than using Netscape, a web browser whose popularity had caught Microsoft completely off guard.
On top of that, Windows 98 did include a few bug fixes. It included FAT32 of course, and offered much better USB support. You could get USB to work with Windows 95, but it was much harder than it needed to be.
Truth be told, by modern standards, Windows 98 was more of a service pack. There was more difference between Windows XP SP1 and XP SP2 than there was between Windows 95 and 98. There’s more difference between Windows 10 and Windows 10 Creators Update than there was between Windows 95 and 98.
Part of me really thinks it was a sham for Microsoft to sell Windows 98 as an upgrade and charge $79 for it.
And then there’s Windows 98SE. The “SE” stood for “second edition.” 98SE was the best of the bunch; it was more stable than the others and Plug and Play worked better. It proved rather enduring; I knew of people using it well into the 2000s. It was the OS that wouldn’t go away before Windows XP became the OS that wouldn’t go away.
You were hoping I’d forget this one, weren’t you? Lots of people have tried to forget Windows ME, which stood for “millennium edition.” Released in 2000, Windows ME was the last of the line. It had much better USB and Plug and Play support but on the whole, the OS was less stable. It was a disaster on a comparable level to Windows 8 and Windows Vista. It drove many people back to Windows 98SE, but by then, there was no reason to go all the way back to Windows 95.
Windows 95 vs 98
To me, comparing Windows 95 and 98SE is like comparing the first version of Windows 10 to the most recent one. The difference is we get those upgrades for free now, rather than having to pay for them $80 at a time. Microsoft had no viable competition in the late 1990s and it showed. I don’t like everything Apple or Google do, but they keep Microsoft honest.