The tactic goes back to the months before the launch of Windows 95, when the company charged a similar price for a beta version of its 32-bit operating system. The night before Windows 95 sales began, people lined up outside stores waiting for the doors to open, so whatever marketing strategies Microsoft used two and a half years ago couldn't hurt now, said Zona Research chief analyst Clay Ryder.
"It's great if they can get people to pay for the privilege of testing their software," Ryder said. "No one's twisting [users'] arms to do this--it's buyer beware."
Once expected to ship in 1997, Windows 98 is Microsoft's home-user upgrade of the Windows 95 system, with added support for new peripheral devices, faster application loading, an integrated television receiver, and the Internet Explorer Web browser.
Windows 98 is in the third and final beta stage of development and includes most of the features that will ship in the commercial version before the end of June. But the operating system still has bugs, as the Microsoft Web site warns: "You should expect to find some bugs in the software, and you may experience some unusual system behavior."
The company expects "savvy" users to pay $29.95 to cover limited technical support and costs of materials. The price does not include shipping and handling.
Selling the beta can also be seen as a way to get Internet Explorer 4.0 into users' hands, an industry analyst pointed out.
"You'll probably be a serious tech-head to want to pay $30 [for beta software]," said Dataquest software analyst Chris LeTocq. "This way Microsoft can get a lot of technically advanced people to use its browser, and get them to pay."
Buyers will not be able to put the $30 toward the purchase of the final product, said Windows product manager Phil Holden. The price of Windows 98 is not yet determined.
The beta purchase program is only available to home users who receive an email invitation from the company to order. The users will not be asked to provide feedback, according to a FAQ page. Microsoft chose people who posted in Usenet groups and who have downloaded other Microsoft software, Holden said.
Users who want the beta but have not received an invitation should check back with the company on February 16, when it will become available to all takers. Microsoft's goal is to sell the beta of Windows 98 to 100,000 people in Canada and the U.S.
Beta 3 was first released in December, starting with developers and other previous beta testers. The new consumer beta program is the first rollout to home users.
The integration of Internet Explorer into the final version of Windows 98 could be in jeopardy if a federal judge rules broadly against Microsoft in the Justice Department's lawsuit alleging antitrust violations on the part of the Redmond, Washington, company.