Last year, Bill Gates promised us that Windows 98 was the end of the line for DOS-based Windows -- that Microsoft would base all its future operating systems on Windows 2000 (the OS formerly known as Windows NT). But it turns out Bill was wrong.
This [northern] autumn, Microsoft will release Windows 98 Second Edition, an upgraded version of Windows 98. The company has also decided to release another Windows 9x-based operating system, probably in the latter half of 2000. Meanwhile, Windows 2000 should appear by the end of this year. The company still intends to create a consumer OS based on Windows 2000, but that product probably won't appear until 2001 or later.
So what should you do? Stick with Windows 9x? Upgrade to Windows 2000 when it comes out? Our first looks at the latest betas of Windows 98 SE and Windows 2000 indicate that if reliability and security are at the top of your OS wish list, Windows 2000 will be worth waiting for. But if compatibility with older applications and entertainment-oriented hardware is more important to you, the Windows 9x line will still be your operating system of choice.
Windows 98, take two
As the name implies, Windows 98 Second Edition is the same old OS gussied up with a few new tweaks. While SE may be a good upgrade for people still using Windows 95 or Windows 3.x, Microsoft admits it's not a must-have for Win 98 users, and that it will be attractive mainly to early adopters of home networking, cable modems and DSL.
The upgraded OS will include Internet Explorer 5, support for new types of hardware (such as the new Device Bay, IEEE 1394, and the aforementioned DSL and cable modems), and some bug fixes. But its most significant new feature is Internet Connection Sharing, which lets networked users access the Net simultaneously over a single connection and ISP account.
In testing a prerelease version of SE, we found ICS dead simple to set up: after a quick install, all the systems on a basic home network were able to share a single dial-up networking connection. ICS is not unique: such "proxy" products have been available for years. But ICS makes this functionality easier for users to implement - and signals Microsoft's intention to make home networking an integral part of its operating systems.
Windows 98 SE will appear this [northern] autumn in three forms: an OEM version for installation on new PCs; a retail version (about $US89) aimed at upgraders from Win 3.x and Win 95; and a $US20 CD-ROM that current Win 98 users can order from Microsoft. A free service pack containing just the bug fixes will be available for free download. Other features of Win 98 SE - including Internet Explorer 5, DirectX 6.1, and some non-crucial security and Y2K fixes - are already available for free online.
The Future of 9x
But that's not the end of Windows 9x. At the recent Windows Hardware Engineering Conference in Los Angeles, Microsoft President Steve Ballmer announced that the company will release a new consumer OS, based on the same kernel as Windows 98, in time for holiday shopping in December 2000.
Ballmer says the new operating system - unofficially known as Consumer Windows in 2000 - will emphasise easier set-up, faster booting and self-healing (in which the operating system detects and solves problems without interrupting the user). The new OS is also likely to continue Microsoft's commitment to home networking by supporting Universal Plug and Play, the Microsoft-initiated technology for enabling smart devices - including consumer electronics - to interconnect with your computer and with one another.
Meanwhile, Microsoft is planning to ship Windows 2000 - which was originally scheduled to ship in 1998 - by the end of 1999. The current target date for shipping the operating system to computer vendors is October 6.
Observers question the wisdom of shipping a major new corporate operating system at a time when IT managers will be busy grappling with the year 2000 problem. But Microsoft product manager Kim Akers insists that Y2K will not delay Win2K.
In looking at a prerelease version of Windows 2000 Professional (the desktop version of the new operating system), we found reliability high on the list of new features. For example, when we tried to install Lotus SmartSuite on our test PC, the System Protected Files feature detected that the Lotus installer was trying to overwrite certain crucial system files. If an application attempts to install a DLL over the version that came with Windows 2000, System Protected Files automatically replaces the interloper with the original file on the next boot-up.
Though Microsoft continues to develop both Windows 9x and Windows 2000, the company hasn't abandoned its dream of unifying its operating systems into a single product, with separate flavours for the home and corporate markets. This consolidated system, however, won't be available until 2001 at the earliest.
Why the delay? The biggest problem, according to Microsoft, is the two markets' different requirements. The corporate buyers prize reliability and security above all, while the home market wants backward-compatibility with older applications and optimised support for gaming hardware. The current incompatibility of design goals ensures the continued separation of the two product lines.
For now, Microsoft's marketing message remains the same: businesses of all sizes should move to Windows 2000 as soon as possible. Meanwhile, home buyers - and anyone still using Windows 95 or 3.x - should consider upgrading to Windows 98 SE; those who don't find Windows 98 SE compelling enough can wait for the next version of Windows 9x in the year 2000 or for the consumer version of Windows 2000 sometime after that. Our advice: upgrade your OS if and when you need to, but don't plan too far ahead.