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Ship date not in Memphis demo

Microsoft executives demoing an early version of the follow-up to Windows 95 couldn't answer the conventioneers' most burning question: When will it ship?

ATLANTA--More people than expected showed up for Microsoft's (MSFT) first major public demonstration of Memphis, the code name for its upgrade to the Windows 95 operating system. But executives couldn't answer the conventioneers' most burning question: When will it ship?

"It's pretty interesting, but do you know when it will be released?" asked Chris Smith, who works for EMC Testing Laboratories in Cumming, Georgia, after watching the 15-minute demo. Memphis has made appearances at other shows such as TechEd for Microsoft developers, but this is the first public demo where no one had to sign a confidentiality agreement.

Added Roger Keyser, a consultant for Automatic Data Processing in Norcross, Georgia: "I'm surprised they didn't name it yet. It might be because Windows 97 is a doubtful name. If it didn't come out until '98, that wouldn't be a very cool name."

While Microsoft officials won't disclose the formal name or ship date for Memphis, according to one industry observer Microsoft Press has let the cat out of the bag.

"Memphis is going to be called Windows 98," said Dwight Davis, editorial director of the Windows Watcher newsletter. "We have it from pretty good authority that Microsoft's book division has published titles like Windows 98 Resource Kit, Getting Started with Windows 98, and Windows 98 Step by Step." Davis said he personally doesn't have a copy of the books.

Microsoft representatives have said in the past that they might call the upgrade Windows 98 even if it ships late this year, so the books don't mean anything for an actual ship date. But here at Comdex and everywhere else there is mounting speculation that Memphis won't ship this year, missing the key holiday buying season.

Windows product manager Alec Saunders, who was leading some of the demos, reiterated today the company's assertion that a beta version of Memphis would be released this month. A first beta already is in developers' hands.

Keyser, who questioned Saunders after one of today's demos, said he was told that Memphis wouldn't be ready to ship until 6 to 12 months after this month's beta release, which could mean spilling into next year. When asked about that, Saunders said he didn't want to be pinned down to any timetable.

Nevertheless, the software giant has been under pressure to ship Memphis by year's end. DirecPC, for example, plans to use Memphis on a satellite-PC service to be launched for the holidays. DirecPC denies it has begun working with another software company, but the deadline for making that decision is looming.

PC makers also want to ship their PCs with Memphis for the holidays. "People are asking a lot of questions that I can't answer, like 'when's it going to be out' and 'what's it going to be called,'" Saunders conceded.

He said he was surprised at the high turnout for the demos. Seven were planned, but two were added to meet demand. The 39 chairs set up for the theater-like demonstration were full, with other people sitting on the floor and standing. Many people showed up ten minutes early to get a seat.

One woman sitting on the floor at today's presentation got annoyed when a man stepped in front of her to get a better look.

Reaction to the demo was mostly positive but not unanimously so. "It looks good," said Manuel Zapata, who works for the Amadeus computer reservations system in Chile. "The world is changing a lot."

In today's demo, Saunders showed the system's support for new multimedia such as DVD, the use of the Explorer browser as the main interface, Memphis's ability to receive broadcasts, and its TV tuner guide.

Saunders showed the TV show Moesha on the PC. Alongside the show were features that let users chat about the show, send email to the producer, and play a game based on the characters. He also showed a video clip from Batman.

The demo was not without glitches. One example: There was an unexpected delay in opening up one of the windows. "It looked like he had a few problems," Smith said.

Added Keyser: "Memphis was less ambitious than I thought, and I expected to see more features." But he added that given the media hype about the release of products such as Windows 95, it was better for the company to take a more conservative approach.

As for the upgrade's name, Davis said that Microsoft execs considered keeping the name "Windows 95" because it has become such a recognizable brand. But instead the company is sticking with its yearly naming scheme borrowed from the auto industry, an approach Davis thinks was never such a good idea.