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Win2K and ME users up creek without a floppy

Headlong rush to ease of use will prevent BIOS updates

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Microsoft today confirmed that users will have no easy way to update system BIOSes after upgrading to Windows Millennium or Windows 2000. M$ commendable aim of removing all those dangerous command line bits has an unfortunate side effect - there's no way to build the bootable floppy needed by BIOS upgrades.

Win2K cannot build a bootable floppy version of itself and ME has been hobbled so that you can no longer SYS a floppy or use the /S switch on the FORMAT command. Check out the following WinME DOS box dialogue:

C:\WINDOWS>ver

Windows Millennium [Version 4.90.2499]

C:\WINDOWS>sys a:

You can only SYS drive C: to try and repair the boot hard disk.
Use the Startup Disk option in Add/Remove programs to create an emergency boot disk.

C:\WINDOWS>format a: /s

Microsoft Windows no longer supports the format /s command.
To create a Startup Disk, click the Add/Remove Programs icon in Control Panel.
Format terminated.

WinME has an emergency boot disk (EBD) option, but this writes 30 files occupying some 1,094,238 bytes of space, leaving just 238,592 bytes free on a floppy. Unfortunately, the expanded update files for the latest Intel Vancouver VC820 BIOS require 729K of floppy space and won't fit on the EBD. Deleting files is one way round the problem, but the average user will not have - and should not be expected to have - the technical knowledge to know which ones to zap.

Microsoft has put a lot of thought into stopping you lot messing about with DOS commands, to the extent of even ensuring that the Win98SE version of FORMAT fails under WinME with an 'incorrect DOS version' message.

While Win2K's inability to create a boot floppy isn't a major problem as most systems will be within corporate environments with tech support boffins more than capable of building floppies for users, smaller businesses who move entirely to Win2K may well find themselves up shit creek without a floppy when it comes to BIOS update time, as will the millions of ME users Microsoft hopes to have come September.

And with ME already released to manufacture, no changes to reinstate SYS or FORMAT functionality will be likely before the end of the year - even if Microsoft decides that's what it wants to do.

A Microsoft technical support spokesman today confirmed that there was no simple way of creating a boot floppy under ME and no way at all of creating one under Win2K. The best he could come up with was writing the BIOS data to a second floppy and swapping disks. Unfortunately, the Intel upgrade process is now totally automated and runs out of AUTOEXEC.BAT. The reason for this being that almost all upgrades now involve rewriting the boot block flash - any interruption to this process can result in the flash being corrupted and the motherboard rendered unusable - hardly a trivial problem.

An Intel spokesman said he could see no obvious way round the problem as including the necessary system files to make a boot floppy would put Intel in breach of Microsoft's copyright.

He also confirmed the inherent risk of updating the boot block, saying: "We wanted to make the upgrade procedure as simple as possible to minimise potential problems, which is why we moved to a completely automated process."

While BIOS upgrades were once rare, fixes to processor and chipset errata mean that these days an update is available every month or so and users sticking with the original BIOS shipped with their systems will inevitably be suffering performance and reliability problems.

Windows ME is designed to make the users' life easier. But in the vital area of keeping the BIOS up to date, it's making it damn near impossible. It seems the only sure way of being able to create a boot floppy in the future is to keep an ancient 286 system in a cupboard and bring it out when you need to write one.

Progress, eh? ®

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