Windows Millennium Edition ("Windows Me") Beta 3 looks and feels like Windows 2000 but offers a host of new consumer-oriented features.
For years, Microsoft had plotted the demise of the old DOS/Windows family of products with a set of point releases that would follow Windows 95. The first of these--known as OEM Service Releases (OSR)--followed the original release of Windows 95 rather closely, adding few new features other than the now infamous Internet Explorer browser integration. And of course, in 1998, Microsoft released Windows 98, the first Windows 95 follow-up to be sold at retail. And in 1999, Windows 98 Second Edition arrived. Each of these sequels to Windows 95 fixed bugs and added new features, but none were dramatic departures from what had come before.

The reason for this lay in Microsoft's enterprise operating system, Windows NT, which was built from the ground up in the early 1990's to be reliable and secure, two features that have continually eluded the company's consumer offerings. Early versions of Windows NT, however, were to large and slow to run acceptably on consumer grade hardware, and software and hardware compatibility issued heaped more frustration on anyone that wanted to upgrade to Microsoft's high-level OS. But Microsoft knew that it would be only a matter of time before the typical consumer machine could run Windows NT, and it had been working to make NT more compatible with its DOS-based siblings since the release of Windows 95. <% ' Added so can inventory as Connected Home articles. kw = "CH" %>

The original plan, perhaps, was a bit too grandiose: After the release of Windows NT 4.0, the company planned to phase out the 9x line with the release of Windows 98. Windows NT 5.0, which was then expected to ship in 1999, would eventually produce a consumer grade edition that would be suitable for home users. However lofty the goals, however, Microsoft was unable to capitalize on these plans. As Windows NT 5.0 slipped from 1999 into 2000, Microsoft issued a second release of Windows 98 and pushed back plans for a consumer version of Windows NT 5.0, which was renamed to Windows 2000. The company promised that a future version of Windows 2000--now code-named "Whistler"--would include a consumer version. But that left a bit of a hole: The company had been releasing yearly updates to its consumer OS since 1995, and no new release was now ready to go for 2000.

Enter Windows Millennium Edition ("Windows Me"), the final version of Windows 98 and the last release of the old DOS/Windows codebase. Announced in July 1999, Windows Me was initially known only by its code-name, "Windows Millennium." Internet rumor sites excitedly announced that Millennium would include a new HTML-based user interface featuring tight integration with consumer-oriented features such as MP3 audio, video, and the Internet. But the initial reports were pretty far off base: Though the company was indeed working on HTML user interfaces, they weren't far enough along to be included in Millennium as the main user interface. On the other hand, a number of HTML-based "Activity Centers"--originally slated to appear in the consumer version of NT 5.0 (then called "Neptune")--will make it into Millennium: These include the online help system, called Help & Support, and a new system recovery feature called System Restore.

The Millennium beta began in fall 1999 with a rather uninspired developer's preview release that didn't add much at all to a stock Windows 98 Second Edition install. But unlike the rumored HTML user interface, there was one planned feature that made it into even the first builds of Millennium, the removal of Real Mode DOS. Though most average users don't understand the interaction of DOS and Windows in Windows 3.1 and 9x releases, Windows has long been a standalone operating system that didn't require the presence of a legacy DOS system to operate correctly. Beginning with Windows 3.1 in 1992, Windows used DOS solely as a boot loader, and it bypasses DOS completely for memory and file system access. On these modern Windows operating systems, DOS is actually run as a virtual machine inside of Windows, not the other way around as most people think. However, Windows 3.1 and all 9x releases through Windows 98 also provide a legacy Real Mode DOS, which the system uses to boot. When you boot into a Windows 9x command line, or "restart in MS-DOS mode", what you're really doing is loading Real Mode DOS. Millennium removes this support for reliability purposes; it also causes the system to boot and shut down much more quickly than before because the legacy DOS mode can be skipped. But though this means that Millennium cannot boot to a command line (without a boot floppy), most DOS programs should continue to run under Windows as before. It's the ultimate "best of both worlds" situation.

After the initial developer preview release, early beta builds added a few new features, though none of them were particularly compelling. When Millennium Beta 1 was released on September 24, 1999, Microsoft even declined to supply review copies to the press, because it felt that the OS didn't yet accurately portray what the final product would look like. On November 24, 1999, Microsoft released Windows Millennium Beta 2 (please read my introduction and exhaustive review), which still largely resembled Windows 98 SE, though some new features such as primitive HTML-based Help and System Restore, set it apart somewhat. Still, at that point in time, Millennium seemed like an uninspired release designed solely to fill the gap between Windows 98 SE and Whistler.

Since that time, however, Millennium has improved dramatically. Unfortunately, for the first time, it also fell behind schedule. On January 21, 2000, Microsoft released what the company called a "Beta 2 Refresh," at a time when Beta 3 was originally expected. And on February 1, 2000, Microsoft announced that Millennium would be marketed under the name Windows Millennium Edition ("Windows Me"). The company tells me that several other names were considered (remember, "Windows 2000" was taken by the renamed NT 5.0), including Windows Home, Windows Family, and Windows Personal, but consumer testing put "Windows Me" over the top. Millennium--Windows Me--now sported the Windows 2000 shell and color scheme, finally dropping the dark gray and teal scheme that had been used for the past five years. And though some HTML-like improvements were scaled back (such as AutoUpdate), the System Restore and Help & Support tools, especially, started to take on a newfound professionalism.

Windows Me Beta 3 debuted two months late, a delay that was largely due to a complete rewrite of the old Windows 98 TCP/IP stack and some incompatibilities that this caused with certain network cards. It includes Internet Explorer 5.5 Beta 3 and the first beta of Microsoft Media Player 7, a completely new multimedia player that more closely competes with Winamp and RealPlayer than previous versions. And with the addition of these features, and new reliability features such as System Restore and the System File Protection (SFP) functionality from Windows 2000, Windows Me is a compelling upgrade for all users of Windows 9x.

In my upcoming review of Windows Millennium Edition ("Windows Me") Beta 3, I will examine the latest release of Microsoft's upcoming consumer operating system, holding it up against the company's own goals for the OS. Microsoft says that Windows Me will focus on digital media, the online experience, PC health, and home networking, the four areas that are of most interest to potential customers. Also, because Windows Me is designed to easily and seamlessly upgrade legacy Windows 9x systems, I take a look at the upgrade picture in addition to simply installing Windows Me Beta 3 on a fresh system with no previous OS installation.

Coming soon: My exhaustive review of Windows Millennium Edition ("Windows Me") Beta 3!