Microsoft has announced what it is calling a "consumer beta preview programme", charging for beta software for the first time.
About 100,000 selected home users in the US will be offered the opportunity to obtain Windows 98 beta 3 - but they will have to pay $29.95 (plus shipping, handling and tax) for the privilege. A similar programme is expected to be launched in Europe shortly.
"The programme is targeted to the end user at home", explained Phil Holden, product manager for the Windows product group at Microsoft. Holden says the company is currently sending out emails to "active, computer-savvy" users. These were selected out of registered Microsoft users and people who have downloaded beta software in the past.
Holden said the $29.95 charge is mainly meant to assure technical support. "We want to assure that the user experience is as good as possible. That is why we can only go to about 100,000 users. The limit is our ability to offer support."
More emails will go out in the coming weeks until 100,000 US users have responded, Holden said. If that number has not been reached by 16 February, anyone interested will be allowed to apply for a Windows beta. Similar programmes in Europe and the rest of the world are expected to attract at least that many users again.
Phil Holden objected to the charge that Microsoft is having end users pay to do the work of betatesters. "These are not beta testers", maintained Holden. "These people are getting a sneak preview. They don't provide feedback like beta testers do."
Holden claimed the consumer beta preview programme is a response to demand from end users to have early access to the new operating system, and is not intended to help Microsoft debug its software. The same Windows 98 beta 3 went out to 20,000 "real" beta testers in December.
For Windows 95, Microsoft had introduced an even larger scale preview programme, which was oriented mainly towards corporate users. "The key target for Windows 98 is the consumer", explained Holden.
The current beta 3 includes Internet Explorer 4.0. The bundling of Windows with Internet Explorer is being challenged by the US Department of Justice in a case before the District Court of Columbia. Holden said that Microsoft will abide by the court's decision. He refused to speculate on whether this would delay the launch of Windows 98.
Windows 98 is expected to ship in June. Pricing has not yet been determined.
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