VNU Net: The difficult birth of Windows Me
Jul 08, 2000, 00:48 (5 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Guy Matthews)
Desktop-as-a-Service Designed for Any Cloud ? Nutanix Frame
By Guy Matthews, VNU
Microsoft has now announced to the world that the long-awaited
new version of its Windows operating system (OS) for home users
will go on sale in September.
With all the final touches complete after a lengthy gestation,
Windows Me or Millennium Edition - to give it its full name and
implied original launch timing - is now in the hands of
manufacturers such as Dell, Compaq and Gateway so they can
pre-install it on their consumer PCs. These, and upgrades to the
product, will be available from 14 September.
But the announcement follows an extraordinary few months of
positioning, protest, repositioning and spin doctoring, as the
software giant tries to set out its OS stall for the next couple of
years and beyond to everyone's satisfaction.
On the face of it, the difficult birth that Windows Me has had,
makes little sense. It is the third and final version of Windows
98, and a stopgap prior to the launch in two years' time of the
next version of Windows 2000, which, with flavours for both
business and home users, will reunite all the Windows flavours
under one brand name.
So why all the fuss over a petty final footnote in the Windows
9x saga, in a year when Windows 2000 is surely the big news?
To start with, the mere existence of Windows Me is a complete
U-turn for Microsoft, breaking chairman Bill Gates' commitment of a
couple of years ago to make Windows 98 the last 9x-based release -
a commitment that was already broken, strictly speaking, by the
launch of Windows 98 Special Edition last summer.
But the real problems started almost as soon as Microsoft
announced earlier this year that Windows Me would be a
consumer-only product. The company said it would strip out all
Lan-oriented features, such as Active Directory and automatic
compatibility with Netware servers, and replace them with
consumer-friendly ones such as speedy start and shutdown.
Significantly, Me would be the first Windows 9x-based product in
which Active Directory had no role and corporate buyers would
henceforth be steered in the direction of Windows 2000. Indeed, it
would be their only choice.
However, the plot had to be rewritten after vocal protests from
such influential voices as analyst company Gartner. It objected to
the enforced migration of business users to Windows 2000 and
advised that networking functionality be reinstalled into Me to
make it a possible corporate option.
Microsoft duly obliged, and connectivity to Novell and Banyan
Systems file servers was back on the agenda, eradicating the need
for customers to buy third-party software.
David Weeks, Microsoft Windows Me product manager, said: "We
took directory services out, but beta testers said they wanted it
back in, so we obliged. If you want to use Windows Me for business,
you will be able to do so without restrictions, even though it is
designed for home users. This is the whole purpose of the beta
testing process, and shows that we are listening to our
But the reinstatement of Lan functionality still led to
complaints that some users had already been forced down the Windows
2000 route unnecessarily by earlier announcements.
Gartner then created further complications for Microsoft by
advocating that business users steer well clear of Windows 2000
until 2001, citing problems with the OSs stability. It also
suggested that the pace of all these frantic upgrades was too
punitive for many organisations.
Despite this, not all analysts support Gartner's view that it is
important for the supplier to offer Me as a corporate option.
Ashim Pal, programme director for the Meta Group, said: "In
spite of any changes that Microsoft has been forced to make,
Windows Me and Windows 2000 are absolutely different in positioning
and focus, and underpinned by different technologies. Me is geared
for peripherals like joysticks and digital cameras, which play no
part in the corporate world."
Home multimedia is the key
For its part, Microsoft has continued to insist that Windows Me was
designed as an OS for consumer use. It has been quite adamant that
the special needs of such users merit a major launch in advance of
a new version of Windows 2000. The reason, it says, is the growth
in popularity of multimedia in the home since last summer and
demand for consumer-oriented networking functionality.
But it is starting to become clear that there are other
underlying reasons for this special emphasis on the consumer
market. Windows Me is not simply a device to drive corporate users
towards Windows 2000 by making it the only practical desktop OS
available to them, as critics have warned.
It is also a wholehearted attempt at keeping consumers committed
to Windows at a time when Microsoft is justifiably concerned that
the market's interest is drifting away from the PC and towards any
number of other cheaper, simpler options - such an internet
appliances, wireless handhelds and set-top boxes.
So, by the time the next version of Windows 2000 is made
available to home buyers, in something like late 2001 or early
2002, the PC may well be as obsolete in the home as the VCR, and a
key market for Microsoft may have gone west.
The writing is already on the wall, and Microsoft appears to
have read it. No sooner did America Online, for example, announce
that it would work with PC manufacturer Gateway to produce
appliances for surfing the web based on, of all things, Linux, than
Microsoft slashed developer's fees for its Windows CE OS by 50 per
And apparently using the same rationale, the Redmond giant plans
to include a host of features into Me that are new to the Windows
platform. These include automatic software updates, Windows Media
Player 7 and System Restore, which restores deleted critical system
Other additions comprise a Home Networking Wizard to make it
easier for users to add computers or peripherals to their machines
and Windows Movie Maker digital video editing software.
Networking multiple PCs
Paul Maritz, group vice president of Microsoft's platforms strategy
and developer group, has also talked excitedly about Windows Me
"enabling new home computing scenarios", by which he means it will
enable consumers to network multiple PCs in their homes.
So it appears that those with a domestic computing requirement
are being encouraged not only to stick with PCs, but to buy them in
One problem that Windows Me may face on this side of the
Atlantic, however, is that the surge of interest in multimedia and
home networking is at present mainly a US phenomenon.
Meta's Pal says: "I would be very surprised if more than one per
cent of PC-equipped UK homes featured any networking at all. It's a
big growth area in the US."
So the trials that have surrounded the launch of Windows Me may
be symptomatic of a changing landscape that does not favour
Microsoft's preferred Windows roadmap. Not only do computing
demands vary from continent to continent, but they are fragmenting
well beyond the accepted orthodoxy of a PC sitting on every desktop
and in every home.
In such a climate, Microsoft has little prospect of
sustaining the universal relevance Windows has enjoyed for the last
decade, and no amount of fast talking and clever positioning
can get away from this.