An early release candidate, or nearly complete test version of the operating system, was released to beta testers earlier this week, the software giant confirmed, but declined to comment on the implications for the release schedule of the product.
At this point, however, it is clear that Microsoft is nearing the completion of the Windows Me beta process, which is designed to discover and fix bugs and holes before the product is released.
Windows Me, formerly known by its code-name Millennium, is the next operating system from Microsoft. Designed solely for home users, the OS is the third version of Windows 98 and the last product based on the Windows 9X code base.
The development of Windows Me has been somewhat tumultuous. Originally envisioned as the consumer version of Windows NT, Microsoft dramatically scaled back its focus as part of a decision to extend Windows 98 into a family of products.
Last month, the company reversed its original plan and decided to include networking technologies from Novell that had been initially dropped in favor of Microsoft networking products. Microsoft included the Novell software after an outcry from small-office users and gamers.
After Windows Me, Microsoft will go to work on Whistler, the code name for the next version of Windows 2000, designed for both home and corporate users. Windows 2000 code is thought to be more stable and reliable than Windows 95 or Windows 98, and Microsoft may be speeding up the release schedule of Windows Me to focus on Whistler, according to sources.
In the meantime, Windows Me is a stop-gap measure, targeted at supporting a variety of technologies that have become popular since Windows 98, Second Edition was released last year. The OS focuses on home networking and digital music and video support, among other areas.
Typically, the official release of a product comes five to six weeks after the first release candidate. Since this is an "early" release candidate, according to Microsoft, the final introduction of Windows Me could still be further off. Microsoft declined to comment on the official launch date of the product.
Microsoft shipped the third and final beta to testers last month.
The reaction to the latest versions of the beta code have been mixed thus far, according to BetaNews.com, a Microsoft enthusiast site. "BetaNews has received mixed feedback on the subject, with some Windows Me (release candidate) users touting perfection and others still finding it buggy," the site said.
Other new features of Windows Me include:
System Restore, which
restores deleted critical system files
Auto Update, which automatically downloads updates from the Windows Update site
Home Networking Wizard, designed to simplify adding computers or peripherals to a home network
Windows Image Acquisition, designed to simplify downloading and saving images from digital cameras
Windows Movie Maker digital video editing software.