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Controversy over Win 98 update

Microsoft is releasing its first update to Windows 98, officially calling it a "multimedia update" as controversy over its purpose persists.

Microsoft is releasing its first update to the Windows 98 operating system, officially calling it a "multimedia update" as controversy over its purpose persists.

The update will be available on the company's Windows Update site beginning August 18, according to a letter sent out to beta testers Wednesday.

The reason for the update and how it is labeled have become the subject of intense debate between the company and critics who wonder whether its primary objective has more to do with fixing bugs than multimedia.

Microsoft today acknowledged that the update was originally planned as a "service pack"--a technical euphemism for a software bug patch--but said it changed the name after concluding the package offered added multimedia functionality rather than mere bug fixes.

The issue is important because questions have been raised about whether Microsoft released Windows 98 despite knowledge of technical problems in a rush to meet ship deadlines. A hot seller See special report: Cracked Windows since its release June 25, Microsoft's latest consumer operating system quickly came under fire for problematic upgrades on older machines and spotty recognition of peripheral devices such as printers.

As previously reported, the software giant has resisted labeling the update a "service pack." Industry sources have said it is in fact a patch that was later called a "multimedia enhancement."

"I can accept the fact that it [the newest multimedia applications] didn't make it in. But if this ends up coming out with new system files, I would be a little torqued, and anybody out there who bought it has the right to be upset," said Bill Peterson, a software analyst at International Data Corporation. "It brings me back to my question: 'Was this product rushed to market?'"

Microsoft said the update will contain any bug patches that are part of new versions of included multimedia applications, but it emphasized that it was driven by the multimedia functions.

"We said up front, internally, 'We'll release this as a service pack,'" Windows product manager Rob Bennett said. "Then we realized there were no bug fixes in this. We looked at the definition of what a service pack is, and this did not qualify.

"Whether it was referred to as a service pack in meetings or in emails, when you look at what's being delivered, it's not a service pack," he added, stressing that the August 18 update does not fit that definition because it contains additional functionality. Service packs address established problems.

Bug fixes are inherent in application upgrades, Bennett noted, explaining that software upgrades contain the fixes for previous glitches along with extra bells and whistles. For example, Windows 98 was estimated to contain fixes for thousands of Windows 95 bugs, in addition to its new features. "With the update of functionality, are we going to fix bugs? Of course. Is that the focus? No."

Redmond also has cautioned that August 18 is more of an internal target date.

In a letter sent to Microsoft beta testers and posted to several Windows 98 Web sites earlier this week, the company detailed the features of the August 18 update, which will include the latest versions of the following:

  • Microsoft DirectX gaming technology.

  • Microsoft Media Player, with access to Windows Media Advanced Streaming Format, QuickTime, MIDI, RealAudio, and RealVideo content.

  • New Web fonts.

  • Microsoft Chat 2.5.

  • WebTV Guide, which supports the GemStar electronic programming guide.

    Many of these features, such as the DirectX and Media Player applications, are already available for download through Microsoft's Web site.

    Within Windows 98 newsgroups and Web sites, where rumors of a service pack for bug fixes have been swirling for weeks, users expressed irritation that so new a product already needed an update.

    "First, they want us to buy Windows 98 (the most expensive service pack ever) and then they release DX6 [DirectX 6]?" wrote one exasperated user to a Windows newsgroup. "Is it really that hard to make the final [version] work?"