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Gates targets end of Windows 98

The first consumer version will come out in two to three years, Gates says at a Microsoft conference today.

ORLANDO, Florida--Windows 98, which comes out this June, will be the last of the DOS-based operating systems because Microsoft is shifting its focus to Windows NT and the first consumer version will come out in two to three years, chairman Bill Gates said at the WinHEC conference in Orlando, Florida this morning.

The initial version of NT for consumers will not be accompanied by a follow-on to Windows 98.

"It is the next major release that will get down to a Windows NT 'flavor' for consumers," Gates said. "We are still working out the feature set." he said.

The shift to the more modern operating system will free consumer computers from much of the technological baggage that has been accumulated on the Windows desktop line, several Microsoft executives and analysts have said. This switch to NT is expected to take place in 2000 or 2001.

Microsoft envisions that consumers will run their PCs on NT and use Windows CE in set-top boxes, handhelds, and other devices that will be synchronized with a central NT computer.

But the transition to NT raises a number of scenarios that could be unfavorable to consumers. For instance, Microsoft charges both computer vendors and software customers, both large and small, more for Windows NT than Windows 95. A shift to Windows NT computing, therefore, could add to the bottom-line costs for both computer manufacturers and consumers.

Windows NT also takes more memory to work properly. Currently, Microsoft is considering raising the minimum memory requirements on its PC 99 specification from 32B to 64MB, according to company executives. While memory is currently cheap, this condition won't necessarily last.

There is also speculation that knowledge of the shift could potentially hamper sales of PCs equipped with Windows 98.

Seeming to anticipate some of these concerns, Gates defended Windows 98 as a viable consumer platform. "We took our time to do a major release" with Windows 98, he said.

Many already disagree. Computer vendors have told CNET that the changes to the operating system are incremental.

The consumer version of Windows NT will differ from the version purchased by businesses, said Carl Stork, general manager for Windows hardware strategy for Microsoft. For one thing, it will have to be much easier to use.

It will also be priced differently, said Stacey Breyfogle, product manager for Windows Desktop. Final pricing, however, has not been set.

Windows 98, meanwhile, will come out in the second quarter, Stork said. Numerous sources have pegged the date at June 25. An upgrade to Windows NT, version 5.0, will arrive at the end of this year or perhaps the beginning of next.

Although no further generations of the Windows 98 will follow, upgrade will occur over the course of its short life. The Device Bay specification, for instance, will not be included in the first version, according to Stork. A support package will follow in the second half of 1998. Device Bay is a technology that will allow users to hot-swap DVD, CD-ROM, or hard drives interchangeably through a universal slot in the front of computers.