Microsoft has now announced to the world that the long-awaited new version of its Windows operating system (OS) for home users will go on sale in September.
With all the final touches complete after a lengthy gestation, Windows Me or Millennium Edition - to give it its full name and implied original launch timing - is now in the hands of manufacturers such as Dell, Compaq and Gateway so they can pre-install it on their consumer PCs. These, and upgrades to the product, will be available from 14 September.
But the announcement follows an extraordinary few months of positioning, protest, repositioning and spin doctoring, as the software giant tries to set out its OS stall for the next couple of years and beyond to everyone's satisfaction.
On the face of it, the difficult birth that Windows Me has had, makes little sense. It is the third and final version of Windows 98, and a stopgap prior to the launch in two years' time of the next version of Windows 2000, which, with flavours for both business and home users, will reunite all the Windows flavours under one brand name.
So why all the fuss over a petty final footnote in the Windows 9x saga, in a year when Windows 2000 is surely the big news?
To start with, the mere existence of Windows Me is a complete U-turn for Microsoft, breaking chairman Bill Gates' commitment of a couple of years ago to make Windows 98 the last 9x-based release - a commitment that was already broken, strictly speaking, by the launch of Windows 98 Special Edition last summer.
But the real problems started almost as soon as Microsoft announced earlier this year that Windows Me would be a consumer-only product. The company said it would strip out all Lan-oriented features, such as Active Directory and automatic compatibility with Netware servers, and replace them with consumer-friendly ones such as speedy start and shutdown.
Significantly, Me would be the first Windows 9x-based product in which Active Directory had no role and corporate buyers would henceforth be steered in the direction of Windows 2000. Indeed, it would be their only choice.
However, the plot had to be rewritten after vocal protests from such influential voices as analyst company Gartner. It objected to the enforced migration of business users to Windows 2000 and advised that networking functionality be reinstalled into Me to make it a possible corporate option.
Microsoft duly obliged, and connectivity to Novell and Banyan Systems file servers was back on the agenda, eradicating the need for customers to buy third-party software.
David Weeks, Microsoft Windows Me product manager, said: "We took directory services out, but beta testers said they wanted it back in, so we obliged. If you want to use Windows Me for business, you will be able to do so without restrictions, even though it is designed for home users. This is the whole purpose of the beta testing process, and shows that we are listening to our customers."
But the reinstatement of Lan functionality still led to complaints that some users had already been forced down the Windows 2000 route unnecessarily by earlier announcements.
Gartner then created further complications for Microsoft by advocating that business users steer well clear of Windows 2000 until 2001, citing problems with the OSs stability. It also suggested that the pace of all these frantic upgrades was too punitive for many organisations.
Despite this, not all analysts support Gartner's view that it is important for the supplier to offer Me as a corporate option.
Ashim Pal, programme director for the Meta Group, said: "In spite of any changes that Microsoft has been forced to make, Windows Me and Windows 2000 are absolutely different in positioning and focus, and underpinned by different technologies. Me is geared for peripherals like joysticks and digital cameras, which play no part in the corporate world."
Home multimedia is the key
For its part, Microsoft has continued to insist that Windows Me was designed as an OS for consumer use. It has been quite adamant that the special needs of such users merit a major launch in advance of a new version of Windows 2000. The reason, it says, is the growth in popularity of multimedia in the home since last summer and demand for consumer-oriented networking functionality.
But it is starting to become clear that there are other underlying reasons for this special emphasis on the consumer market. Windows Me is not simply a device to drive corporate users towards Windows 2000 by making it the only practical desktop OS available to them, as critics have warned.
It is also a wholehearted attempt at keeping consumers committed to Windows at a time when Microsoft is justifiably concerned that the market's interest is drifting away from the PC and towards any number of other cheaper, simpler options - such an internet appliances, wireless handhelds and set-top boxes.
So, by the time the next version of Windows 2000 is made available to home buyers, in something like late 2001 or early 2002, the PC may well be as obsolete in the home as the VCR, and a key market for Microsoft may have gone west.
The writing is already on the wall, and Microsoft appears to have read it. No sooner did America Online, for example, announce that it would work with PC manufacturer Gateway to produce appliances for surfing the web based on, of all things, Linux, than Microsoft slashed developer's fees for its Windows CE OS by 50 per cent.
And apparently using the same rationale, the Redmond giant plans to include a host of features into Me that are new to the Windows platform. These include automatic software updates, Windows Media Player 7 and System Restore, which restores deleted critical system files.
Other additions comprise a Home Networking Wizard to make it easier for users to add computers or peripherals to their machines and Windows Movie Maker digital video editing software.
Networking multiple PCs
Paul Maritz, group vice president of Microsoft's platforms strategy and developer group, has also talked excitedly about Windows Me "enabling new home computing scenarios", by which he means it will enable consumers to network multiple PCs in their homes.
So it appears that those with a domestic computing requirement are being encouraged not only to stick with PCs, but to buy them in bulk.
One problem that Windows Me may face on this side of the Atlantic, however, is that the surge of interest in multimedia and home networking is at present mainly a US phenomenon.
Meta's Pal says: "I would be very surprised if more than one per cent of PC-equipped UK homes featured any networking at all. It's a big growth area in the US."
So the trials that have surrounded the launch of Windows Me may be symptomatic of a changing landscape that does not favour Microsoft's preferred Windows roadmap. Not only do computing demands vary from continent to continent, but they are fragmenting well beyond the accepted orthodoxy of a PC sitting on every desktop and in every home.
In such a climate, Microsoft has little prospect of sustaining the universal relevance Windows has enjoyed for the last decade, and no amount of fast talking and clever positioning can get away from this.
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