Ballmer confirms two new versions of Windows 9x due

MS completes code merger climb-down, and contemplates hitting users twice for $90 in the one 12 month period

Last year Bill Gates told the Microsoft hardware engineering conference that Windows 98 would be the last DOS-based version of Windows, and that it would be merged into Windows NT. Well, that's not what Microsoft president Steve Ballmer said yesterday when he opened the HEC in Los Angeles. Ballmer announced there will be a new version of the DOS Windows next year, quite apart from the bug fix that is scheduled for later this year, to be called the Windows 98 second edition -- and unlike most bug fixes, this will not be free. Ballmer tried to present the programme for Windows as being simplification and enrichment, but behind the hype is the simple truth that NT5 is far behind its much delayed schedule and still unstable. There is some vagueness about what next year's DOS Windows will be called. Microsoft has been describing it as "a new consumer version" of Windows. It seems that the renaming of NT and 9x to Windows 2000 is becoming very confusing, even for Microsoft. It was originally Gates' idea to stop using version numbers, such as Windows 4.0, and use Windows 95. Ballmer indicated at the time that he was uneasy about this. The new consumer Windows is a necessity for Microsoft because of falling PC prices, as well as the NT5 delay. Resellers have become increasingly concerned that NT is not appropriate for consumers, and too expensive. The so-called merging of 9x and NT code essentially means dumping most of the 9x code and charging a bit less for NT, just as Microsoft did with its Server and Workstation versions of NT, where the code is identical and it is possible to convert Workstation to Server. The size of NT is so great that it would have only been possible to ship it to consumers with new PCs at considerably higher prices. Support requirements are also likely to be horrific for OEMs and resellers, who have to bear the burden for this. Nor is this forthcoming consumer version necessarily the last of DOS Windows. Ballmer would only say that a later version of its consumer operating system would be merged with NT-based Windows 2000, but earlier reports suggests this isn't now programmed until 2002. Which in Microsoft years could easily mean never - projects that far out don't even have flip charts yet, never mind development teams. Ballmer also demonstrated a 64-bit version of Windows 2000 for Merced and the Alpha, saying that the 64-bit version will be released soon after the release of the 32-bit version late this year. For once, Microsoft may find itself under some pressure from Novell, which has demonstrated a Merced-ready version of NetWare. If Microsoft releases a very buggy 64-bit version, it may well find that this misfires badly. In other announcements, Microsoft unveiled a prototype monitorless Windows-based server appliance for small businesses (scheduled for the second half of this year, Microsoft says). Another announcement was what Microsoft calls its EasyPC initiative that it developed with Intel to help setup and expansion. (Historical note: Many years ago, when His Billness was sufficiently unimportant to do support gigs, we saw him at Comdex Atlanta applauding a new Zenith product, the EZ PC. This attempt at hardware simplification sank without trace, but did Bill remember the name? - Ed) Microsoft also announced a plug-and-play forum, a play group apparently designed to promote device-to-device compatibility. Whether this is a way of Microsoft controlling what hardware drivers it will distribute with Windows remains to be seen. But following earlier disasters and Microsoft's decision to do drivers itself, it would not be surprising to find device manufacturers being presented with a bill if they wanted their kit to have a driver in Windows - perhaps with lower fees if the device just didn't happen to work with other platforms. Ballmer said he had not seen any evidence of a slowdown in PC sales this year, but he was "a little concerned about year 2000", which we interpret as concern over sales next year rather than Microsoft's Y2K problems. These will gain a guaranteed lion's share of the horror stories to come when Microsoft gets blamed for everything. Speaking about Linux, Ballmer sat on the fence: "When we figure out what it means for us, we'll let you know" What he means of course is that Microsoft will only do something if it has no option, and it needs to know the outcome of the trial first. Look for the latest stories about the WinHEC in The Register during the day, 8 April 1999 as more details become available. ®

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