Consumer, business Windows versions close to release

Microsoft nears the completion of two upcoming operating systems spanning the spectrum of PC users, from entry-level home computer users to the most demanding corporate customers.

Microsoft today neared the completion of two upcoming operating systems spanning the spectrum of PC users, from entry-level home computer users to the most demanding corporate customers.

The software giant issued the first "release candidate" of Windows Me, formerly code-named Millennium, to beta testers. It also released the second beta version of Windows 2000 DataCenter to its hardware partners, marking progress in the beta testing process for the high-end of Microsoft's corporate products.

For Windows Me, reaching the release candidate level indicates Microsoft has nearly completed the beta testing process, which is designed to ferret out and fix bugs and other problems before the official release. There are generally one or two release candidates before the product ships.

Windows Me has changed in focus and scope since the beginning of its development process. The OS initially was targeted as the first consumer version of Windows 2000, which is thought to be more stable and secure than its Windows 95-based counterparts.

That long-term plan was scrapped, however, as Microsoft was forced to grapple with immediate changes in the home computing market. The company has released Windows 98 Second Edition and has readied Windows Me, also based on Windows 98 code, to address advances in digital media, home networking and competition from simplified Internet appliances.

Windows Me contains a fast-boot feature that, if PC makers take advantage of it, speeds the start-up time of home computers to less than 30 seconds. This change was in direct response to the proliferation of Internet devices that allow quick access to Web content.

Microsoft has not added new features since the release of the third beta version this spring, when the company changed course again and returned third-party networking technologies from Novell that had been removed in favor of Microsoft proprietary technology, drawing criticism from testers and analysts.

"Release Candidate 1 is an important milestone to delivering Windows Me during the second half of this year," a Microsoft representative said via email. The company has not yet disclosed the release date of the OS.

One scheduling scenario has Microsoft shipping final code June 13 to CD-ROM makers and PC manufacturers to load onto new computers, according to Paul Thurrott, editor of Microsoft enthusiast newsletter "WinInfo." That would put the product in stores about July 25, assuming a typical six-week lag.

Microsoft is also readying the final versions of Windows 2000 DataCenter, the highest-end version of the operating system for corporations and Internet businesses. Already touted as more secure and reliable than its Windows predecessors, the OS is being promoted by Microsoft as the appropriate option for data warehousing companies and Internet and application service providers.

In comparison to the other versions of Windows 2000, DataCenter supports up Windows 2000: The next generation to 32 clustered CPUs and 64GB of memory.

Microsoft has not disclosed the release date or minimum requirements for hardware running DataCenter, but a representative said the company will launch a deployment program with its hardware partners to create a single customer support contact.

"This is the first time Microsoft has approached a product this way," the representative said, noting that the most demanding customers will no longer be shuttled between Microsoft and the hardware manufacturer when looking for fixes. "There is going to be one line of support for the product."

Microsoft is preparing to unveil its Next Generation Windows Services, the expected companywide initiative encompassing Windows 2000 and the company's Internet products to compete with Web-based applications and services companies, while offering a comprehensive array of Internet products including DataCenter.