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Microsoft releases last Win 98 beta

The company still expects to ship its OS upgrade to PC makers Friday even though regulators are expected to file antitrust suits.

Microsoft has released what might be the last major upgrade to the Windows 98 beta and says it expects to ship the operating system to PC makers this Friday, despite the fact that as many as 20 states and the Justice Department are expected to file antitrust actions against the company by the end of the week.

In yet another challenge to the software giant, Sun Microsystems said it will seek a court order forcing Microsoft to alter Java-related aspects of Windows 98, a move that could delay the release of the upgrade. Microsoft says the suit is a publicity stunt by a longtime rival.

Also today, QVC, the TV See related story: 
Sun suit may block Win 98 retail giant, announced that it will televise a Windows 98 demonstration on its shopping channel May 15. The upgrade will be available for preordering through QVC's Web site. The retail version software is slated to be available June 25.

Over the weekend, Microsoft released the last version of Windows 98 to its partners for final performance tests before its ships the completed code to PC manufacturers. These test versions, called release candidates, are the final opportunity for Microsoft to address any performance or reliability issues.

The software giant says it still has sufficient time to change the code it will ship to PC vendors. If necessary, Microsoft could even ship additional release candidates this week without delaying Friday's shipment, according to Kim Akers, group product manager for Windows 98. "There is no set number of release candidates before the code is released to manufacturers," she said. "It's all about feedback."

If the code is indeed shipped Friday, PC vendors have six weeks before the June 25 launch to install Windows 98 on their machines. Any delays, whether dictated by performance or antitrust issues, could delay PC vendors' efforts to meet the launch date, analysts say.

Microsoft has been in "daily contact" with vendors to help prepare them for Windows 98 installation, Akers added.

"Five to six weeks is probably quick by some [vendor] standards," said Dwight Davis, an analyst who covers Windows for Summit Strategies. "But because this operating system isn't dramatically different from Windows 95, there won't be any major surprises."

Microsoft is getting plenty of moral support from PC manufacturers. Earlier this month, several major Microsoft partners, including Compaq Computer, IBM, and Intel, urged the DOJ not to take any action that would delay the release of Windows 98. (See related story)

Speaking in Tokyo yesterday, Lew Platt, CEO of Hewlett-Packard, added his voice to the chorus, according to a report in the Nihon Keizai Shimbun. The U.S. stock market could suffer if the release of Windows 98 is blocked, Platt told the Japanese business publication.

A number of PC manufacturers also are planning to offer free upgrades to Windows 98. (See related coverage)