The Windows 95 successor, an upgrade code-named Memphis, has just entered its first full-scale beta-testing program.
Microsoft has been circulating Memphis, which will use Internet Explorer 4.0 as its main interface, for several months among developers. The version shipping now is "close to feature-complete" and is heading to about 10,000 test sites, according to Adam Taylor, group product manager for the personal and business systems division.
Memphis has also commonly been referred to as "Windows 97," although it is unlikely to hit the streets before 1998. Microsoft has steadfastly refused to commit to a ship date.
Whatever its name, the company ended a conference about Internet Explorer 4.0 last week by demonstrating some of the features that will differentiate Memphis from Windows 95.
The spotlight was on the upgrade's broadcast architecture, an attempt to integrate a television tuner into the operating system. A trio of Microsoft engineers showed how Memphis can tune in both digital and analog video from satellite, cable, and regular television transmissions.
As reported in May by CNET's NEWS.COM, Memphis will also organize the program schedules from various broadcast sources into a TV programming list similar to a cable system's preview channel.
Because the Memphis TV "screen" is actually an HTML page with an ActiveX video control, the user--or viewer--will be able to browse related sites, data, and games, as well as participate in online chat sessions as they watch a TV show.
Windows NT 5.0, an upgrade of the company's corporate operating system, will also include the TV-tuner broadcast technology developed for Memphis, according to Windows product manager Phil Holden. NT 5.0 is expected to ship next year.
Microsoft also showed off new versions of more familiar operating system features. The company demonstrated the Memphis "help desk," a package of utilities that lets users update software, scan for viruses, and automatically clean out browser cache files.
To make upgrades easier, Memphis will maintain a small database of system information on a user's hard drive. When the user connects to an "Upgrade Manager" Web site, it will compare the Memphis database to the latest available system software. If software is out of date, the Web site will automatically upgrade it.
"We will automatically slurp up the relevant information from your system," said Bill Veghte, Windows platform general manager.
Users have criticized Microsoft for using its operating system to collect information about users' desktops--information that critics say the company used for marketing. But Microsoft stressed last week that the Upgrade Manager won't work without the user's permission.
Microsoft will also tweak Memphis's network architecture to speed Internet connections. For example, Memphis will add support for ten-digit numbers and an auto-reconnect feature that will reestablish a connection if the computer drops off the Internet.
Memphis will also provide new networking options, such as letting users connected to a LAN simultaneously dial in to an Internet connection. Memphis will also add support for virtual private networks and will handle data packets better for high-bandwidth users, according to Veghte.
However, Memphis won't completely deliver on at least one feature that developers have expected. The company had said previously that it would merge the collections of hardware drivers for Memphis and for Windows NT. This would mean that hardware developers would have to create only drivers--or software that links a PC to a peripheral device, such as a printer--for a single operating system instead of two.
Veghte admitted that Microsoft will not create a single video display driver for Memphis and NT, although it still plans to merge other sets of drivers for audio, still image, scanning, the universal serial bus, and video capture.
The company will spend at least another year to combine the two sets of device drivers. Microsoft expects to continue to work on the merger past the releases of both Memphis and NT 5.0, according to Holden.
Microsoft still plans to bring Windows 95 and NT closer together. The single-device driver initiative is one aspect of those plans, as is the plan to bring the Active Desktop to Windows NT 5.0.
Other Memphis features include: