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Microsoft: What's in a name?

Redmond sends the latest version of its Windows 98 service release to beta testers--a fairly typical occurrence, except for one significant twist.

    Microsoft has sent the latest version of its Windows 98 service release to beta testers--a fairly typical occurrence in the beta testing process, except for one significant twist.

    Microsoft has renamed the collection of bug fixes Windows 98 SE--short for Second Edition, according to beta testers who have seen the release. This marks the third name for the ever-expanding project. And, while the company declined to comment on any name changes, observers believe that the fancier title might help drive adoption.

    If customers think they are getting more than a package of bug fixes with the service release, the theory goes, they might be more willing to buy it or at least download it from the Net--which will reduce Microsoft's support costs.

    The service release has gone through several iterations and in the process has increasingly become larger and more complex. Microsoft initially broke the testing into separate groups: one to test the service pack for consumers, and one to test the new version of Windows 98 to be loaded by PC makers onto new computers.

    Microsoft then consolidated the testing into one group, evaluating what was called the OEM [Original Equipment Manufacturer] Service Release. That name has now been changed to SE, according to Nate Mook, Webmaster for beta testing site BetaNews.

    "First OSR, then SR, now SE--will they ever make up their mind?" Mook said in an email. Indeed, sources say that the SE moniker is but one possibility being floated by the Windows team, and that Microsoft has not yet decided on a final name.

    The service release has evolved from a collection of bug fixes and application updates to include Internet Explorer 5. The later builds were unwieldy to download, and some testers complained that the release had become too large.

    There are many theories as to why Microsoft would change the name of a relatively minor release. Some users believe that Microsoft is trying to induce users to upgrade by exaggerating the importance of a typical service release.

    "The key to the name change is their motivation behind it," Mook said, noting that few consumers ever upgraded Windows 95 after the first service release was issued. "I have a feeling they realized that this would be the case with the Windows 98 update as well."

    "This is a far more user friendly name, and sounds like something you would sell, not give away," noted Justin Jenkins, Webmaster of BetaLabs.com.

    Windows 98 Service Pack Screenshot

    Microsoft will not make much money from consumer upgrades, because most users will download the files for free. Microsoft will charge a small fee for the CD-ROM version, noted Rob Enderle, analyst at Giga Information Group, but renaming the service release may motivate more users to upgrade, easing Microsoft's support costs, he said.

    "Microsoft is not looking at this to be a revenue opportunity," he said. "It's a way to get people to move to the new platform, and off Windows 95?They want to get people off the old code base for support reasons."

    Other users believe that Microsoft may be trying to divert attention from delayed products like Windows and Office 2000 by hyping the service release.

    "Microsoft needs something to release, and to work. Office 2000 is lagging behind, we have seen nothing of Windows2000, and now a sudden name change," Jenkins said. "No coincidence."