Microsoft has changed its strategy for the future of consumer Windows several times in the last few years, reacting to various hardware advances, delays in the release of its corporate operating system, and personnel reorganizations within the company.
Currently, the official stance is this: Microsoft will release Millennium, another version of Windows 98, next year and Neptune, a consumer version of NT, in 2001 at the earliest.
However, the lines are not clear-cut because beta testers now report that Millennium contains elements of Windows NT, the consumerish Windows 98 and Windows 2000, a corporate desktop operating system coming at the end of this year. Microsoft recently released a preliminary version of the Millennium code to developers and hardware partners.
Although observers say these kinds of twists and turns are typical on the road to a major software release, some critics wonder if all the changes might actually be fueled by competitive challenges, such as the Linux operating system and America Online's popular instant messaging software.
If anything, Microsoft appears to be busy grafting. The Windows Explorer file manager appears to be comprised almost completely of Windows 2000 code and is identified in the operating system as being from Windows 2000, according to Chris Hilbert, Webmaster at BetaNews, a beta testing Web site, while some of the help files appear to be based on Windows 98, Second Edition.
"I think Millennium is just something they threw together to ooh and ahh the audience with this developer release," Hilbert said, adding that he does believe that the core of the operating system is based on Windows 98, as Microsoft has said. "I believe the guts, or kernel of the operating system, is still Windows 98 based, although a good portion of [Windows] Explorer does show signs of being Windows 2000."
Originally, last year's Windows 98 was targeted as the last release based on the DOS operating system. Future consumer operating systems were expected to be based on Windows 2000, a variant of Windows NT.
That strategy was then scuttled in favor of continuing the life of Windows 98 through incremental updates. Windows 98 Second Edition, released earlier this summer, was one such update. Millennium will be another. Windows 2000 has since been a victim of numerous delays, but is expected in corporate systems by the end of the year.
Microsoft product managers could not replicate any scenarios that would identify the software as anything other than Millennium, a company spokesperson said, but conceded that the development team may have lifted code for minor features like dialogue boxes from Windows 2000.
"There's no reason to invent whole new code--but that doesn't affect the fact that they're based on completely separate kernels," she said, explaining that using different code is merely a shortcut for the development team. "It shouldn't be necessary to reinvent the wheel. They can use the efforts of other groups."
But testers assert that the situation affects far more than an isolated dialogue box or two. Justin Jenkins, Webmaster of BetaLabs calls Millennium "Windows 2000 skin over Windows 98, as far as I can tell."
It's still quite early in the development process for Millennium, and Hilbert notes that trial versions of Windows 98 contained references to Windows 95. However, developers and hardware partners depend on early releases of operating system software to make long-term product plans, analysts say.