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Microsoft releases test versions of Whistler OS

The software giant releases the first test version of its next Windows operating system, which will finally merge consumer and business computers under one umbrella.

Microsoft on Tuesday released the first test version of its next Windows operating system, which will finally merge consumer and business computers under one umbrella.

The new operating system, code-named Whistler, is Microsoft's replacement for Windows Me for consumers and Windows 2000 for businesses.

Whistler is Microsoft's first operating system for consumers and businesses based on the same software code. While Windows Me for home users was based on Windows 98, Windows 2000 for businesses was based on Windows NT. The new Whistler will be based on Windows 2000.

The software giant is making the test versions available to its 200,000 software developers via its MSDN Web site, as well as to partners and corporate customers. The final desktop and server editions of Whistler are expected to ship in the second half of 2001, Microsoft executives said.

Microsoft, based in Redmond, Wash., has not released details or new features for Whistler, but sources who have seen the test version for consumer PCs describe it as more than just a Windows 98 upgrade. Whistler features many under-the-hood changes as well as major changes to the interface, testers say.

Microsoft has been dinged by critics in the past for collecting minor changes to the operating system and giving the tweaks an entirely new name. For example, some people called Windows 98 Second Edition nothing more than a bug fix. It did, however, include new home networking technology, such as Internet Connection Sharing, allowing multiple computers to share one Net connection.

With Microsoft's Windows 2000 software code under the covers, the consumer version of Whistler will be more reliable, more secure and easier to manage, a Microsoft spokeswoman said Tuesday.

Microsoft on Tuesday made available the test versions of Whistler for both desktops and servers. Both 32-bit and 64-bit versions of Whistler are available. The 64-bit version, which can handle more pieces of data simultaneously, is designed for use on Intel's long-delayed next-generation Itanium processor. It helps Windows catch up to some 64-bit features of the Unix operating system, such as use of large databases.

The company will gather feedback from testers and make changes and bug fixes based on the comments it receives. The Microsoft spokeswoman said the company generally releases two or three beta versions of an operating system before a final release.

Microsoft in September released Windows Me, which is largely an extension of Windows 98. Windows 2000 for businesses was released in February.