Microsoft issues Windows Me release candidate

So much for date math: Microsoft Corporation has released the first release candidate build, RC0, of Windows Millennium Edition ("Windows Me"), the final version of Windows 98. And as this feature complete build suggests, the product is basically set in stone; only Windows Media Player 7 will be modified substantially between now and the final release, which is due in five week. Microsoft has begun seeding PC makers with Windows Me RC0 so that they can begin selling systems based on this operating system mid-year. And testers have been asked to focus on data loss, system instability, functionality regression, and no-boot issues only; minor and cosmetic changes are not possible at this stage.

Windows Me has followed a strange path since early rumors of its existence in early 1999, when Microsoft was still publicly stating that Windows 98 SE would be the last of the 9x line. In July 1999, the company admitted that it would release yet another 9x product, however, because of problems getting Windows 2000 compatible with a wide-enough range consumer desktop software and hardware. Code-named "Millennium," this OS was to have ushered in a new iterative user interface paradigm through a feature called Activity Centers, which was later scaled back due to technological limitations. However, Millennium/Windows Me has always had a single charter, to give home users the best platform possible.

Microsoft released the first beta of Millennium last September, and the product then still resembled Windows 98 SE heavily, though there were some hints of the improvements to come. In late November, the company released Millennium Beta 2, and while this build included HTML-based Help and System Restore features, they were still ugly looking and immature. And some features that were found in Beta 2 were later dropped for various reasons, including the Application Manager and Game Options applet for Control Panel that would have automatically uninstalled games that were infrequently used, saving disk space. This would have required games to be completely rewritten for Millennium and it's unlikely that any game makers showed any interest in doing so. And an early version of IE 5.5 debuted in Beta 2, giving evidence that this release was designed solely to facilitate the Activity Centers user interface required by this version of Windows.

In January, Microsoft released a "Beta 2 Refresh" of this OS, and then the company announced the final name of the product, Windows Millennium Edition ("Windows Me") a month later. Windows Me should have hit the Beta 3 phase in January, but the product was delayed because of massive incompatibilities in the new TCP/IP stack, which had virtually been rewritten from scratch. Over the next several releases, Microsoft worked to correct the problem and, finally, on April 11th, Beta 3 was released. Beta 3 featured a Windows 2000-like user interface, elegant Help & Support and System Restore applications, and a much more stable platform for consumers. And now, with the release of Release Candidate 0, Windows Me has hit the home stretch.

Windows Me is a high-quality release, and given the amazing patchwork quilt of legacy technologies that lie beneath it, one might consider it a technological marvel. But for Windows 98 users concerned about the incompatibilities and resource requirements for Windows 2000, Windows Me might also be an obvious upgrade. I've written a lot about Windows Me on the SuperSite for Windows and will continue to do so after it's release in mid-June. But the short version is that Windows Me is an excellent upgrade for the vast majority home users currently running Windows 9x, and it's well worth considering this product as a future upgrade.

Thanks to everyone that wrote in about this release

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