Windows Millennium Beta 2 features the basic user interface from Windows 2000 sitting on top of the Windows 98 kernel.
To some, it was the surprise announcement of the decade. For those of us in the know, however, it was simply the validation of rumors that had been spreading like wildfire all over the Internet. On April 7, 1999, Microsoft president Steve Ballmer announced that the software giant would release a new Consumer Windows sometime in the year 2000 that would be based on the Windows 98 kernel, not Windows 2000. Before this dramatic turnaround, Microsoft had adamantly said that Windows 98 would be the end of the line for the 16/32-bit DOS/Windows line of operating systems.


To 9x or NT: That is the question
"There's a good reason to build upon the foundation of the personal computer," Ballmer said at WinHEC last April, where the announcement was made. "It's brought us all the success we've all had, and the PC is not getting less popular."

Indeed, while the plan to release a consumer version of Windows NT/2000 was a good one technically, it had a slew of problems that simply weren't going to be overcome anytime soon. Windows 2000 is too big for consumer machines, for example, requiring massive amounts of RAM and high-end processors. It's not nearly as compatible as Windows 9x: Consumers expect to plug in hardware or install software and have it just work. Also, Windows 2000 is bloated with features designed for the customers that should be using that enterprise OS: corporations. Things like IntelliMirror, Active Directory, and the advanced security features in Windows 2000 have no place in a consumer OS.
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So the Consumer Windows team had two alternatives: Try and hack enough of the features out of Windows 2000 so that it would run acceptably on typical consumer level equipment, or go back to the old Windows 9x kernel and do another upgrade like Windows 98.

One of the odd things about technology, of course, is that just about anyone can point to Windows NT/2000 and explain that it's better. But why is is "better"? Is it really better? The Consumer Windows team took a hard look at Windows 98 again and realized that it actually had some compelling qualities that make it perfect for Consumers. In fact, it's everything that Windows 2000 isn't, good and bad. So the decision to move forward with a new version of Windows 9x was actually logical, once they got over the corporate mindset of "NT everywhere."

Who says NT has to be everywhere anyway?


Goals for Windows Millennium

In late July, 1999, Microsoft made its second major announcement about the next Consumer Windows. Along with the news that this release would be code-named Millennium (Windows 98 was Memphis, while Internet Explorer 4.0 was Nashville and Windows 95 OSR-2 was Detroit: I guess the days of city name betas are over), Microsoft explained its goals for this new release and announced that a "developer's preview" had been shipped to the top Windows 98 Second Edition beta testers.

"The Consumer Windows Division is focused on truly making computing easy for consumers," said David Cole, vice president of the Consumer Windows Division at Microsoft. "We are excited to reach this first milestone on the path toward delivering a version of Windows specifically designed to enable consumers to take full advantage of their PCs in the 21st century."

Microsoft came to the conclusion that the top areas to focus on for Consumer Windows would be digital media and entertainment, the online experience, enabling the connected home, and making the PC "just work." With that in mind, Millennium will focus on the following four key areas:

  • Digital Media and Entertainment: Digital media is becoming increasingly popular, as illustrated by the exponential growth in areas like music on the Web and digital photography. The Consumer Windows Division will focus on enabling users to take advantage of all this new content, making it easy to access, play/view and store as well as providing an enhanced PC gaming experience.

  • Online Experience: Providing consumers a premier home online experience is a primary goal for the Consumer Windows Division. This means ensuring consumers can easily connect to the Web, locate desired content and determine which content is right for their family.

  • Home Networking: With more than 15 million households now owning two computers and the cost of new PCs continuing to fall, as well as the many intelligent hardware devices being created, networking at home is becoming a reality for more people. The Consumer Windows Division will work to simplify the process of connecting multiple computers in the home, enabling them to share information and an Internet connection, and provide the infrastructure for connecting different intelligent devices to the PC.

  • "It Just Works": The Consumer Windows Division is committed to providing consumers with a solution that 'just works,' from the moment a user starts their PC and throughout their daily computing experience. This promise will be delivered upon by the advancement of the PC's self-healing functionality, in addition to providing a simpler set-up and a great out-of-the-box experience for new computer users.

Words like "easy" and "simple" appear over and over again in Microsoft's literature about Millennium, and it's no wonder: If you had to narrow these goals down to a single vague ideal it would be this: Millennium must be simple for the consumer to use

Two months after the Developers Release, the company produced the first major release of its next Consumer Windows operating system, Millennium Beta 1. Because this release didn't accurately reflect the fit and finish of the final release, Microsoft elected not to provide the media with review copies. However, Microsoft did show an interim build of Millennium to select members of the press during Fall Comdex in mid-November and it was apparent by that point that the desired quality was coming together. On November 24, 1999, Microsoft released Windows Millennium Beta 2. (Has anyone else noticed the exact two month spacing between each release?) This release was given out to the press for review, and its the version I'm looking at here.

Incidentally, one major feature was dropped from Millennium between Beta 1 and Beta 2: Activity Centers. Vestiges of this HTML-based user interface component will be found in the online help system in Millennium, as well as a few other applications such as System Restore, but the full-blown HTML-based Activity Centers have been put off until Neptune, the Windows 2000-based version of Consumer Windows that will follow Millennium. According to Microsoft employees I've talked to, Activity Centers were dropped because they just weren't far enough along visually. Enhancements to the core HTML engine in Windows are expected to make Activity Centers possible by late 2001, however.



>> Continue to my review of Windows Millennium Beta 2