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Beta testers question readiness of next Microsoft OS

Although Microsoft says development of Windows Me is on track, some testers claim there are more bugs than usual in the latest beta versions of the company's next operating system for consumers.

Although Microsoft says development of Windows Me is on track, some testers claim there are more bugs than usual in the latest beta versions of the company's next operating system for consumers.

Windows Me, as Microsoft calls the new operating system, is the third version of Windows 98 and Microsoft's latest consumer software project. Originally planned as the consumer successor to Windows 2000, Windows Me is the company's attempt to inject some of the stability and reliability of Windows 2000 while expanding support for some of the trendiest new technologies.

Microsoft says the product will come out in 2000. Sources in the testing community claim the company plans to release CDs of the new operating system to PC makers between May and July and have it loaded on consumer PCs by fall. Keeping on this schedule depends upon ironing bugs out now. While some testers say the beta process for Windows Me is proceeding as expected, others believe a larger than normal bug count in the current beta, coming on a slightly accelerated testing schedule, poses potential delays.

Microsoft adamantly denies the testing process is not proceeding normally but otherwise declined to elaborate on the progress of Windows Me toward retail store shelves.

Under the worst-case scenario, bugs could result in shipping delays. In the past, the company has been criticized by some users for forcing unnecessary software upgrades and rushing buggy software to market.

The development of the operating system has already had a tumultuous life at Microsoft. Company chairman and founder Bill Gates initially announced that Windows 98 would be the last DOS-based operating system, pledging all releases after the Windows 95 successor would be based on the Windows NT kernel, which is thought to be more secure, reliable and stable than DOS.

The company quickly changed courses, however, and announced a series of DOS-based follow-ups to Windows 98: Windows 98, Second Edition, and Windows Me, code-named Millennium.

Microsoft scaled back the scope and feature set of the new development project, sources have claimed, and focused on adding support for new consumer technologies that had become popular since Windows 98 was released. These primarily included digital music formats such as MP3 and digital video editing on the desktop.

But some testers say the beta versions they've seen are riddled with more bugs than usual and that Microsoft is more hurried in its responses to bug reports, according to Bob Stein, of ActiveWin, a beta testing Web site.

Microsoft disputes this depiction of the Windows Me development process. "The beta process is designed to encourage feedback. Bug reports are not only encouraged, but necessary," a spokesperson said. "I'm not aware of any of those claims, or of any information that would characterize the process as anything other than routine."

Others in the Microsoft testing community believe Windows Me is on track. Paul Thurrott, editor of the WinInfo newsletter, has high hopes for the new OS.

"Windows Me will Windows 2000: The next generationnever reach the reliability of its high-end Windows 2000/NT cousins, but it's far more stable than Windows 98," he wrote today in his Microsoft-focused newsletter, adding that he believes the company will show off the new beta at its Microsoft Extreme event at the end of the month.

"We're still committed to releasing Windows Me in 2000," said a company representative, although many testers have pegged the target date to release the software to CD-ROM and PC manufacturers as late May, with new computers loaded with Windows Me shipping sometime in the fall. "We don't comment on specific release dates," the spokesperson said.

"This timetable would give Windows Me a late June/early July street date, right on schedule for retailers and PC makers to start stocking up for holiday sales," Thurrott wrote. "So far, there are no indications that Microsoft won't meet these dates."