Ioanid Rosu held up two versions of Windows Millennium edition to a CompUSA sales assistant here recently, and expressed confusion. "What's the difference between these?" he asked in Romanian-accented English.
The promotional, less-expensive version of the new operating system upgrades only from Windows 98, while the standard version can upgrade from Windows 95. But when he discovered the new OS eliminates DOS from his PC, Microsoft lost a sale.
"I wouldn't buy this," Rosu said. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) mathematics graduate student needs DOS to run Unix at home. "If you need to make Unix and Windows live together, you need this DOS," he said as he stacked the two boxes of Windows Millennium - also known as Windows Me - software on the shop assistant's desk.
Behind the shop assistant was an open box containing carnival-prize-style plastic, green, pink, and blue watches each with the name of Microsoft's new Windows Me title on the watch faces calling out to customers, "Me, Me, Me. . ."
But the box was nearly full.
CompUSA in Cambridge was selling the Windows Me promotional version, and had sold fewer than a dozen copies by mid afternoon, said Ken Climo, a salesman there who also beta-tested the software. "We've also sold a couple of copies of the standard version for the free watches," he added, smiling.
It's a far cry from the crowded midnight store openings heralding the release of Windows 95, and Climo expects fewer Windows Me sales than the sales following the release of Windows 98.
He attributed the slow sales to consumers questioning the value of an upgrade, particularly when he said a consumer version of what's currently known as Windows 2000 is due for release next year. "I consider Windows Me to be more of an add-on than an upgrade," Climo said. "It's a stop-gap measure to fix some compatibility problems with Windows 98 between now and Windows 2000."
For example, he said, Windows 98 would not accept certain USB (universal serial bus) devices in plug-and-play mode.
Noury Bernard-Hasan, Microsoft's group production manager for Windows, described the release as timely, but denied problems with Windows 98 drew the company into releasing Windows Me.
"Windows 95 was a seminal event for a lot of reasons . . . and 98 was an incremental update," he said. "This is a timely update."
The Windows Me operating system includes a function to restore the software configuration to a point where it was working properly, automatic upgrades from Microsoft online without the user's intervention, and enhanced multimedia abilities. The system also comes with Windows Media Player 7 and Web browser Internet Explorer 5.5.
Windows Me also has a fast boot cycle, cutting startup time by 50 to 75 per cent, according to Microsoft. In order to do that, the new operating system removes "real mode" DOS, seen in the black text screen as a Windows 98 computer starts up. While DOS is a legacy environment, there are still some DOS applications, a potential issue for hardened technophiles like MIT's Rosu.
For more casual home users, Microsoft's Bernard-Hasan touted the ease with which home PC users will be able to link multiple computers together, particularly for gamers. "You don't need to be a PhD to set up a home network - it's roughly a five-click set up with the wizard," he said. "It will be a better gaming platform."