By Luke Mason

Windows Millennium is the latest and, apparently, the last release of the original Windows family. The Grand Microsoft Plan to incorporate both the 9x versions of Windows (95, 98) and Windows NT before the release of Windows 2000 has, rather noticeably, not happened. Windows 95, which was originally supposed to have been amalgamated with NT, sounds ancient. And Windows 98 is starting to seem like a bit of a fossil as well. I can only guess that Microsoft’s current thinking is that the term “Millennium” Edition will last until the year 3000, meaning that Microsoft will have another 999 years to get this amalgamated DOS/NT right. We’ll keep our fingers crossed, eh?
Luke Mason is an IT manager for one of the largest CD, cassette, and DVD manufacturers in Great Britain. In this article, he sounds off on Windows Me. In a previous article, he described how he recovered from a mistake while installing a Deerfield Mdaemon e-mail server.
Beta release schedule
What I have in front of me is Release Candidate 1. About two weeks after I received my CD, RC2 turned up. I’m now told that RC2 was the last beta, and the final build was released to manufacturing on June 21..You won’t see it in the shops, at least in the United Kingdom, until September, but expect to see OEM releases before that.

I won’t dwell on the unreliability and bugs found within this version, because no one should expect anything different from beta code. What I will express, however, is my opinion about how different this release is from Windows 98 and whether anybody should be shelling out the dollars to upgrade their systems. Let me make this clear: Microsoft is going to charge you to upgrade to this release, so there really needs to be something worth buying.

The installation
Right from the installation, the similarities between this version and the previous one are obvious. In fact, the only difference between the installations is that Windows Me asks for all the answers to its questions before you install, then gets on with it. Especially in the networked corporate environment, this is practically a godsend. The install also has a feature to back up your previous Windows configuration before anything is replaced, effectively allowing you to uninstall the operating system. How things have changed from IE4 a couple of years ago, when a Web browser could not physically be uninstalled!

I left the install routine to run while I went out to lunch and got back to find my familiar desktop background waiting for me. I had upgraded from Windows 95 OSR-1 with the USB supplement and IE5 installed along with the update to data components required to run Access 2000. Suffice it to say that I couldn’t really find a more difficult upgrade scenario to present Me, and it passed with flying colors, although it did already have a working system to go from.

Hardware detection aside, the only problem I’ve had is with the Microsoft IntelliPoint software. Windows Me helpfully told me this software “probably will not run but I can try it if I really want to.” Fair enough, I thought. I can live without it.

The hardware side was more of a problem. While I don’t ever expect an operating system at this stage of development to detect every possible hardware combination exactly, it would be nice if the OS didn’t detect hardware that’s not actually in my system. I’m now set up for the following:

  • Two modems (One modem I really have, but the other one is a lie.)
  • A TV Data Adapter (Is this WebTV? I don’t know, but it has an icon looking like a hardware card.)
  • An Iomega Parallel Port Zip Interface
  • A Closed Caption Decoder

Whether some of these additions are related to WebTV (which Microsoft now owns and started to plug into Windows 98), I don’t know. But since none of them works, I’d like at least some kind of explanation about them. Also, if the TV Data Adapter is a software “codec” of some kind to enable WebTV, why is Device Manager telling me that it’s not working? Despite these questions, the hardware configurations were not such a problem as I had expected. Everything at least works, even if it doesn’t work well.

Why should IT managers care?
Microsoft has targeted Me largely to the consumer market. But if you are planning to use it for the enterprise, you need to ask if this release is suitable for use within a business environment. Me does not support NTFS, so there’s no disk-based security. It allows you to join an NT Domain, but so did 95 and 98, and so do NT4 and 2000. In fact, with the current plugging of 2000 Professional, you have to ask whether this OS is really suitable for business at all.

Among the new features, the Media Player is most impressive. Other new features include Movie Maker and a host of screen savers and desktop wallpapers. HTML has made another big appearance in this release, as even the Windows 2000 help system has been updated to look more colorful and inviting. The Control Panel has had the same treatment, now hiding all the applets that are less commonly used, especially by the inexperienced user. And the Start menu hides the less frequently used files in the same way as Windows 2000 does.

While all of these are useful developments, you have to ask whether they’d ever be of any use within a corporate environment. I can’t imagine there are many offices where users are encouraged to play around with the Control Panel, whereas the first thing I did was to display all options in the way I’m used to. Media Player is very nice; in fact, it’s the best application of its kind around at the moment, even if it is a little restrictive to anything but Microsoft formats. However, it’s hardly a reason to upgrade all your workstations. It’s also now available as a free download from the Web, so you can’t really call it part of the OS (or a financial incentive to upgrade).

As a footnote, while the functionality of Windows Media Player is impressive when it’s running under Windows 2000, it eats 25 MB of physical memory. That’s more than Access 2000 uses, so it’s a waste of hard-bought hardware in a business environment.

So what is there in Me that would make an IT manager choose to upgrade their workstations? File Protection makes an appearance, which is great in practice—stopping “rogue” installation routines (including those written by Microsoft) from downgrading DLLs to an earlier version. However, I still can’t fathom why Microsoft chose to allow applications to install system DLLs as part of their function. And File Protection is a bit of an ugly solution to a problem that was caused by Microsoft in the first place.

DOS support is retreating, which is generally a good thing. AUTOEXEC.BAT and CONFIG.SYS are still there, but if you try to change them, File Protection simply discards your changes as soon as you reboot. I can’t say I have a problem with this, as any hardware or software that requires such basic DOS support is obsolete anyway.

One change that concerns me is that the [F8] menu at startup no longer has any DOS support. You can boot in safe mode, but not to a command prompt. You can’t shut down in MS-DOS mode, and it is no longer possible to create a boot disk when formatting. I don’t know why this was done, as it surely couldn’t cause too much of a problem. I just hope that everybody in the world has a CD-ROM bootable BIOS and drive these days. If you ever need to reinstall outside of Windows itself, you are in serious doo-doo.

Also note that applications such as Partition Magic will no longer work, because they need to append to AUTOEXEC.BAT to carry out their changes to the system. System Restore is a good idea, allowing users to “roll back” their system to a previous configuration. However I think that most “dangerous” changes to a system alter it in quite a big way. Imagine installing Office 2000 and then trying to undo this change. You’d better have some serious free disk space available. I hate to think of the amount of space that copies of all files altered by an Office install would take up.

My conclusions
So what is the difference between Windows 95 and Windows Me, five years apart? Well, Me certainly looks better, and some would say that it allows 2000 Pro users to easily switch between machines. However, this is not true, as the interface is a hybrid between 95/98 and 2000. For example, Network Neighborhood (which has, incidentally, disappeared from the desktop in Me) is now My Network Places, as it is in 2000. However, Dial Up Networking is still found under My Computer, not in Start, Settings, Network, and Dial Up Connections, as in the other OS. I know that I get confused when switching between the two OSs, so I’m sure that your average end user will, too.

The interface is friendlier, yes. But you’ve been able to hide Control Panel applets since Windows 3.0, and Internet Explorer 4 made most of the other changes to Windows 95 four years ago—for free. Windows Media Player and Windows Movie Maker are free downloads, so they can’t be included. I have to admit, I’m at a loss as to what the main differences are. If you were unhappy with a 95 or 98 networked install, then you’re unlikely to see your problems resolved. If you’re unhappy enough to upgrade, then upgrade to Windows 2000 and reap what must surely be the most sought-after reward: greater stability. Microsoft has produced an OS that is about a year out-of-date for home use on brand new computers.

Buying a computer with Windows Me installed will be interesting. It annoys me that manufacturers plug a PC for business use then neglect to install an Ethernet card and stick Windows 98 on it. I hope these people will finally realize that NT/2000 is a business OS and that Me is definitely not.

So it looks as if you’re probably going to encounter Me preinstalled (minus install CD, remember, because Microsoft wants to stop piracy) if you buy new hardware. Is it worth having a new computer with Me on? I’d say no, which is the same as how I’d answer, “Is it worth having a new computer with Windows 98?” I don’t believe they’re suitable for business. If you were happy running 98 on your workstations, you might as well run Me if it’s preinstalled; at least everyone will think that your IT department is up-to-date. But if you want my advice, scrap that install of Me and use Windows 2000 Professional instead. You’ll thank me in three years’ time.
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