The History of Windows Millennium
The Stopgap Windows Release
Early home microcomputers didn’t have much power. Early examples made use of the Intel 8008, and these were followed by machines that used either the Intel 8080, the Zilog Z80, or the MOS 6502. The Intel 8080 and Z80 machines mostly used CP/M as their operating system, and this system’s capabilities were purposefully limited so as to not to consume precious CPU cycles and seriously expensive RAM. The abundance of software available for CP/M, the number of programmers proficient in writing software for CP/M, and the hardware support for these 8 bit machines meant that Microsoft and IBM had to compromise various aspects of the IBM PC to make the machine successful. The choice of the 8088 instead of the 8086 was partially cost, but it was more importantly the compatibility with cheap 8 bit chips that this CPU offered. The choice of PC-DOS was to maintain some software compatibility (at the source level) with CP/M. Through the use of assembly language translators, ports of software from CP/M to PC-DOS were easily achieved.
The two companies, however, had other ideas in mind from the start. Microsoft’s hope was to migrate the market to UNIX via XENIX, and a little later IBM wanted to move the market to OS/2. Both of those efforts failed, and Microsoft eventually chose to move to a VMS-like operating system called NT. Multiple conditions had to be met before such a massive transition could take place. Consumer grade hardware had to improve to a point where more sophisticated software features could be easily supported, software compatibility layers would also need to be made to support prior software investments, and ease of use would need to improve dramatically. Starting as early as Windows 1, Microsoft began working toward a more powerful, simpler, and easier future. With the rift forming between IBM and Microsoft and the success of Windows 3, Microsoft had even more legacy to worry about. Features of NT then began to slowly migrate into Windows releases, and the Win32 API became ubiquitous.
On the 25th of March in 1998 at WinHEC, Bill Gates stated that Windows 98 SE would be the final release of Windows utilizing the Win9x kernel and associated technologies; the Windows platform would finally be unified under the banner of NT. On the 7th of April in 1999 at the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference, Steve Ballmer reversed this by stating that in the late Spring of 2000, a successor to Windows 98 would ship. On the 30th of March, Microsoft had a reorg to support new development efforts. The company would now be divided into five teams, the enterprise Windows team would continue under Jim Allchin, but the consumer Windows team would become its own business unit under the leadership of David Cole. The enterprise team was already at work on NT 5, and the members of the consumer division had to create something. The race was on and there was very little time. The team chose to focus on improvements to Windows 98 rather than creating something radically new and different.
On the visual side of things, the consumer team chose to incorporate the designs being built for NT 5. This was a rather obvious choice for two operating systems being released around the same time. The next decision was to drop support for real mode DOS. This reduced the maintenance burden for this release and simplified the boot process by, for example, skipping any processing of AUTOEXEC.BAT or CONFIG.SYS. Other boot process changes included PnP device enumeration parallelization. The improved WDM drivers from Windows 98 were now the preferred driver type, and these drivers could now be signed. This change, in hindsight, may have been a bad move given the short development time available.
The first release of Windows Me was shipped on the 23rd of July in 1999. This was called Developer Preview 1 (later referred to as Developer Release, or DR) and was considered a “pre-Beta” release. This release was essentially Windows 98 SE, but it contained an early version of “Help and Support” dubbed PC Health, and it brought over some of the visual cues of Windows 2000. Around this time, the focus of Millennium was finally made public: digital media and entertainment, online experience, home networking, simplicity and ease of use. David Cole, the VP of consumer Windows, said: "The Consumer Windows Division is focused on truly making computing easy for consumers. We are excited to reach this first milestone on the path toward delivering a version of Windows specifically designed to enable consumers to take full advantage of their PCs in the 21st century."
DR1 was followed by DR2 two weeks later, and DR3 was shipped one week after DR2. These brought more of the visual changes, more of the underlying technical changes, but weren’t truly significant. DR4 was shipped on the 24th of August in 1999 and included a splash screen hinting at an upcoming beta release. Another build was released on the 9th of September, and PC Health was now “Help and Support,” System Restore made its first appearance, and Activity Centers were first seen.
On the 19th of September in 1999, Microsoft began contacting its preferred members list in the hunt for testers for beta 1. The hardware requirements were listed as a 150MHz or better Pentium, 32MB of RAM, and 320MB of hard disk space. On the 24th of September in 1999, Windows Me Beta 1 was sent to testers. Or at least, that is what Microsoft stated. The company sent build 2380 to testers and later declared that build as the beta. The announcement released on the 24th, was dated for the 23rd, and the actual press release was dated as the 22nd. So, at some point in those three days, the beta release occurred. This release wasn’t provided to the tech press.
On the 24th of August in 1999, Windows Millennium Beta 2 was sent to testers. This was a large release. In comparison to prior builds/releases of ME, this one included performance optimizations and stability improvements. It also brought the Application Manager, Game Options Control Panel, System File Protection, and Internet Explorer 5.5 Beta. The Game Options Control Panel was an interesting feature. For games that supported this, were they played more often than others they’d be allowed to use all of their required disk space. For those games used less often, their disk space would be revoked and they’d be run from CD-ROM. This feature didn’t survive to the official release. System File Protection was a port of the same from Windows 2000, and it prevented the overwriting of system files. IE 5.5 improved performance, enhanced printing capabilities, offered better internationalization, and brought improvements to site saving. Something was fundamentally different between the builds of IE 5.5 for Me and for prior Windows versions as the browser required double the RAM in Me (32MB vs 16MB).
Microsoft Windows Millennium became Windows Millennium Edition marketed as Windows Me on the 1st of February in 2000, and the finalized look of the loading screen arrived with build 2465 on the 11th.
Microsoft Movie Maker was added in build 2470 and the final forms of both Help and Support and of System Restore were first seen.
The ship date for Me was initially set for the 26th of May in 2000, but this deadline was missed, and the world was treated to Beta 3 on the 7th of April. This brought Windows Media Player 7, internet connection sharing, digital camera integration, Fast Boot, and many other improvements. Fast Boot was a term used for computers that could boot in thirty seconds or less. The first company to support this was Dell who announced on the 18th of May that a Dell Dimension model would ship with fast boot by the end of the year. This boot speed was enabled by providing manufacturers with a tool to analyze the boot speed of a machine with various drivers and devices enabled, and also through through the previously mentioned removal of Real Mode and parallel initialization.
Windows Me build 3000.2 was released to manufacturing on the 19th of June in 2000 and the OS appeared on store shelves starting on the 14th of September in 2000. This was not a super hyped release as Windows 3, 95, or 98 had been. There was also quite a bit of confusion in the market regarding Me vs 2000, and prior rumors of Neptune. Yet, Windows Me had a few things to recommend it. It had more hardware support than 2000, it could start faster, resume from hibernation faster, and shut down faster than 2000 on the same hardware. Yet, it was still Windows 9x, and many consumers felt little pressure to upgrade. Compared to other releases, Windows Me offered only protected mode and only fully pre-emptive multitasking. While these are great improvements, these changes also meant that Windows Me was incompatible with some DOS and Win16 applications.
Windows Me suffered from serious stability issues. One source of these was memory management. The design of Windows Me made it best suited to 512MB of RAM or less due to the cache driver (Vcache). It had a bug where when more than 512MB of RAM was present the driver would consume all available memory addresses. To work around this issue, a user could adjust the MaxFileCache setting in the System.ini file. This problem was made worse when using an AGP video card. Another source of issues was the driver change. In Windows 98, the new driver model had been optional while in Me this was the default. Hardware manufacturers remaking drivers created instability as well resulting in many BSODs.
The common crashing was made worse by the fact that System Restore contained a time stamp bug. For some snapshots made after the 8th of September in 2001, the date and time of the snapshot could be incorrect which would then make those snapshots unavailable as restore points. Microsoft released an update to fix this, but it did further erode the perception of Windows Me.
In my own usage of Windows Me, the OS was fairly stable on prebuilt computers shipped with the OS using less than 512MB of RAM and left as designed from the manufacturer. Using 86Box on macOS with Apple Silicon with a disk image made from a prebuilt machine, the OS was also stable. This is interesting as the operating system was robust enough to handle severe hardware changes without issue.
Given the short development time, Windows Me was very ambitious. It introduced many new features, new applications, and pushed the consumer desktop forward in its technological development. Its short comings become more understandable in this light. At this point, PCs were a big business. Over one hundred million PCs shipped in 1999, Microsoft Windows had revenues of around two billion dollars, and office had slightly higher revenues than that. Microsoft’s largest competitors for new products were its previous releases of those selfsame products. Whatever failings Windows Me had, they were short lived as Windows Me’s shelf life was scarcely more than a single year. Windows XP’s first preview build had been sent to developers on the 13th of July in 2000. Official support for Me ended on the 11th of July in 2006.
I now have readers from many of the companies whose history I cover, and many of you were present for time periods I cover. A few of you are mentioned by name in my articles. All corrections to the record are welcome; feel free to leave a comment.