About 4 million of you purchased Microsoft Corp.'s Windows 98 operating system, and I'm still not sure why. That rather skimpy upgrade to Windows 95 was absurdly overpriced at $89. But lots of you paid it, so it's no surprise that Microsoft would try again, Thursday, with Windows Millennium Edition, or Windows Me.
But this time it's different. There's a lower price - $59 for Windows 98 users, $89 for all others - and, this time, value for the money.
Some rubbish, too. For a glimpse of Microsoft at its worst, there's the built-in Movie Maker software, Microsoft's response to Apple's marvelous iMovie video editing software, available free with all new Macintosh computers.
Movie Maker's user interface may have been created to confuse on purpose, to keep the user from realizing how little the program can do. For instance, it won't let you generate fancy special effects for your videos, or even basic titles. For that, you have to run Microsoft's ancient Paint program and import your creations.
Yes, I know - by version 3.0, it'll be cool. But Apple got it right the first time out.
Maybe Microsoft's engineers were mastering the secret powers of my boyhood hero, the Russian monk Grigori Rasputin. Historians dismiss the legend that Rasputin's murderers poisoned, shot, bludgeoned and drowned the fellow before he finally gave up the ghost. Still, it's a lovely story, which might have inspired a Windows Me feature that guards the vital dynamic link library files, or DLLs, that make Windows work.
Most people will never deliberately alter a DLL file, but many programs secretly fiddle with them, often with deadly results. I recently trashed a laptop merely by installing AOL software on it; several vital DLL files stopped working.
Windows Me locks down about 800 of these DLLs. If any program tries to tinker with one of them, Windows Me preserves the file from ruin.
To test the system, I renamed a vital DLL. Within seconds the original had reappeared. Then I tried deleting the file altogether. It reappeared. I didn't try flinging my computer into a river, as Rasputin's enemies reputedly did to him, but you get the idea.
Too bad I failed to wreck the system; Microsoft claims that Windows Me would still have been able to heal itself. The product hides a compressed mirror image of the operating system in a corner of your hard drive. If the operating system gets trashed, this feature will supposedly resurrect it.
Microsoft says this feature isn't as complete as that offered by some other firms, such as Adaptec Inc.'s GoBack software. GoBack can restore an entire hard drive; Windows Me will rescue only itself. But even this limited capability could be a lifesaver.
For a more obvious improvement, Windows Me offers a magically easy way to link two or more home computers. If the Movie Maker is clunky in that familiar Microsoft way, Windows Me's Home Networking Wizard looks like something written by Apple programmers in their spare time. Rarely has a Microsoft program done something so useful in such a simple elegant way.
First you hook up your network, either using Ethernet cable or a wireless networking system. You run the wizard on your Windows Me machine, with a blank floppy disk in the drive.
It sets up the computer as the hub of your network and loads a package of software onto the floppy. Next, you plug the floppy into the other Windows 95, 98 or Me computers on the network, and run the code contained therein. That's it. With the wizard, I added a laptop to my home Ethernet in five minutes.
The main Windows Me computer can be your network's link to the Internet. When it's online, all the other computers are online. You don't have to know a blessed thing about IP masquerading or DHCP servers; it all just works.
Still, none of this is essential. If you're happy with your present Windows software, feel free to give this one a pass. That goes nearly double for those not using Windows 98 - you'll have to pay an extra $30. But if you're one of the suckers who paid $89 to upgrade to Windows 98, you'll probably think $59 for Windows Me is a real bargain. And this time you'll be right.