Windows Me problems surface, Me-based PCs go out the door

It seems that the birth of Windows Me will be a difficult one: After virtually ignoring the final version of Windows 9x for months, Microsoft's marketing machine is finally kicking into gear and promoting the product in various ways. Unfortunately, these attempts at promoting what many people see to be a dead-end product have resulted in some bizarre problems. One of the more embarrassing mishaps involves the Windows Me Sweepstakes, as mentioned in WinInfo last month: This Web site offers prospective Windows Me users a chance to win one of 50 free copies of the new OS every day; a really lucky winner will get to travel to Redmond and tour the Microsoft campus. There's just one problem: The site's been down more in the past week than it's been available. And I've gotten dozens of angry emails from people wondering what happened.

A survey of the site's availability over the past week was sobering, as I wasn't actually able to get in until this Monday morning. The site, which is not run by Microsoft, could not be accessed for most of the past week, the company acknowledges. And so far, no one has any idea what the problem is, though Microsoft says that the response to the sweepstakes has been "overwhelming." But CNET is reporting that the site's hits are pretty low for such a high-profile contest, logging an average of 300,000 unique visitors a week since it went online July 25th. The top two sweepstakes sites, CNET reports, log approximately 6 million unique visitors a week. The Windows Me sweepstakes site places only 37th among such sites.

Another issue for Windows Me involves the suddenly confusing promotional pricing for the Windows Me upgrade. At the beginning of August, Microsoft announced that it was temporarily lowering the price of the Upgrade version of Windows Me from $109 to $59 so that Windows 98 users could upgrade more cheaply. But since then, it's become clear that this special promotional price represents a different product, called the Windows Me Step-Up. The difference between a true Upgrade version and a "Step-Up" product is vast: The Upgrade can be used to upgrade any version of Windows 9x (including Windows 95) and can be used to perform a full (or "clean") installation of the OS, assuming you've got a copy of your Windows 9x CD-ROM for license verification. But a Step-Up version can typically only upgrade a fully running copy of Windows (in the case of the Windows Me Step-Up, only Windows 98 and Windows 98 SE are supported). And when Microsoft offered a Step-Up version of Windows 98 SE, it only cost $19. So the Windows Me Step-Up is actually $30 more expensive than the previous version, not $50 cheaper as the company says.

I've been unable to determine whether the Windows Me Step-Up can be used to perform a fresh installation of the OS. If it cannot, I do not recommend this product to power users, as a clean installation of Windows Me is much less perilous than an upgrade and it's likely that many people will eventually want to install the OS from scratch. If you don't fall into this category, however, the Windows Me Step-Up is still a cheaper way to upgrade then the Upgrade version. Just be sure to hang onto that Windows 98 CD-ROM.

If you've been striking out with the Windows Me Sweepstakes and you're still interested in getting the new OS before its September 14, 2000 street date, you could always purchase a new PC: As predicted in WinInfo months ago, major PC makers are now offering Windows Me on their systems. Dell, Compaq, and other top-tier PC makers are now offering Windows Me as the default choice on consumer-level PCs, though Windows 98 SE (with and without a free Windows Me upgrade) is also still available. Windows Me is such an obvious choice for the lucrative back-to-school market, which makes one wonder why Microsoft didn't make it available at retail weeks ago, as the OS was completed in June. The time between the "RTM" (release to manufacturing) date of Windows Me and its retail street date was never explained by the company, and it's easily the longest downtime for any Microsoft consumer product

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