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Microsoft to include networking technology in Windows Me

In an about-face, the software maker decides to include software in its new operating system that will allow consumers to hook their PCs into networking software from two competitors.

Microsoft has decided to include software in its Windows Me operating system that will allow consumers to hook their PCs into networking software from two competitors after all, an about-face prompted by customer and industry complaints.

The Redmond, Wash.-based software giant last month decided not to incorporate a "networking client" for Novell and Banyan networking software in Windows Me, its upcoming operating system for home PC users. News of the decision prompted a rash of complaints. The company now has reversed itself and will put the software back into the OS.

"Based on feedback from partners and customers, we'll put it back in," said Shawn Sanford, a product manager at Microsoft. The third beta version of Windows Me, released to testers last week, included support for Novell Netware, he said.

The controversy emerges from a conflict between Microsoft's stated plans and customer demand. Windows Me is the first operating system from Microsoft solely dedicated to the home PC user. Networking software from Banyan and Novell--which allows owners to connect PCs to servers, printers and other office computers in corporate networks--is made primarily for businesses.

Because of the relative lack of overlap between these markets, Microsoft had said that it decided to take the networking client--a chunk of software code that allows a consumer to hook into a Novell or Banyan network--out of Windows Me. This would not render the PCs unable to hook into a Novell network, although to do so, a consumer would have to obtain and install the appropriate networking client. By contrast, a built-in networking client can be activated with a few mouse clicks.

Microsoft's argument was assailed by critics who claimed the distinction was artificial and would force small and home business users to upgrade to Windows 2000, which costs about $100 more. In addition, Microsoft's decision to leave its own proprietary networking client in Windows Me, while dropping support for its third-party competitors, raised questions about whether the move was motivated by competitive concerns.

"When users don't like the decisions Microsoft is making on their behalf, they do have ways of expressing their displeasure," said Michael Gartenberg, an analyst at Gartner Group, which first reported the move in a bulletin. "It underscores the fact that many organizations are not yet ready for Windows 2000 and would want to go with another revision of Windows 9x, if the decision is in their hands."

Underlying the debate is the strong possibility that Windows Me will find its way into business environments. Many computer makers market small business or home office notebooks that contain Windows 98 and other "consumer" software.

As for Banyan, Microsoft says it had never included the company's networking client per se--only files to help with its setup. Windows Me still lacks those files, Sanford said, because the company had not received a significant number of requests asking for their inclusion.

The development of Windows 2000: The next generationWindows Me has been somewhat tumultuous. Originally envisioned as the consumer version of Windows NT, Microsoft dramatically scaled back its focus as part of a decision to extend Windows 98 into a family of products. The company will release a consumer version of Windows 2000 within the next five years, Microsoft has said.

Although Windows Me is expected to incorporate some of the look and feel of Windows NT, the product is more focused on providing support for new consumer technologies, such as digital media and home networking, and less focused on attempting to achieve the same level of stability and reliability that Microsoft has touted with Windows 2000.

Microsoft says its reversal does not indicate that it has changed the positioning of Windows Me as a home product. "It's still targeted at the consumer," Sanford said, noting that consumers who play video games online had complained about the decision to drop the networking clients.

"I'm not surprised Microsoft backed down," Gartenberg said. "They had everything to lose and nothing to gain by dropping it."

Windows Me will be released in the second half of this year, according to Microsoft. Sources say the final code will be shipped to manufacturers in early June, after initial delays.