An internal prototype of an upcoming consumer operating system, code-named Whistler, was posted online earlier in the week, the company confirmed. The availability of the prototype was first reported by ActiveWin, a Microsoft-focused Web site, and other sites dedicated to beta testing.
The prototype posted to the Internet contained a future version of a Microsoft Network (MSN) client and tighter integration between the OS and the browser. It also captured more of the look and feel of the Internet, according to ActiveWin.
A Microsoft representative said the prototype posted to the Internet wasn't exactly a "beta," which would imply a greater sense of completeness, but it consisted of Whistler code. The company does not know who posted the code but is trying to find out who did.
Whistler eventually will be a consumer operating system based on Windows 2000, the company's recently released OS for corporate computers. Touted as more secure, reliable and stable than Windows 95 or Windows 98, Windows 2000 will serve as the cornerstone of Microsoft's OS strategy for the foreseeable future for both the consumer and corporate markets.
Although the Whistler code has disappeared from the Internet for now, it could well re-emerge, which could present a number of problems for Microsoft. Many features seen in preliminary versions of software don't make the final cut, leading to possible customer backlash when consumers learn what was left out.
Perhaps more importantly, it gives testers and others a sneak peek into what Microsoft is thinking.
The code is believed to be a version of the OS created for testing bugs. Although software testing involves releasing versions of code to a limited number of users, the group is strictly controlled and testers must sign nondisclosure agreements prohibiting them from speaking about the features or bugs of upcoming releases.
"The reason why the beta testing process is such an integral part of the development process is that the feedback of beta testers is important to work out any concerns that developers and beta testers find along the way," a Microsoft representative explained earlier this week. "It's far too early in the development process to even speculate" about the possible implications.
Before Whistler comes to market, Microsoft will introduce Windows Me, code-named Millennium. The last operating system from the company to be based on Windows 95 code, Windows Me is expected to be released early this summer.
Windows Me is designed to be easy to use. Whistler is supposed to take that focus one step further. The software release that is said to be making the rounds of the Internet includes HTML enhancements to folders, which brings the look and feel of the Internet to the desktop. Microsoft has gone that route before, most notably in Windows 98, which featured the Active Desktop feature. Active Desktop integrated Internet Explorer into the normal PC desktop screen.
ActiveWin also says the code of Whistler that has hit the Web contains a future version of Microsoft's MSN client, which would indicate the integration between the browser and the desktop first seen in Windows 98 has been taken further with the next operating system.
Microsoft's consumer operating strategy has seen many twists and turns since Windows 98 was announced. Originally, Windows 98 was to be the last product based on MS-DOS. However, the company changed course and extended the product's life with two follow-up releases, Windows 98, Second Edition, and the upcoming Windows Me.
The last two Windows 98 versions have been seen as stopgap measures, intended to address the huge changes in home computing between the release of Windows 98 and the expected release of Whistler.