The Scourge of Windows Millennium Edition

Like playing Russian Roulette with your data...

MSDOS-based versions of Microsoft Windows, such as Windows 95 and Windows 98, had notorious stability problems, due in large part to their mixing of 16-bit and 32-bit application code (in order to maintain compatibility with programs and device drivers written for the earlier Windows 3.1).

The last, and most unreliable of these versions of Windows was Windows Millennium Edition, or Windows ME.

We’re in trouble now! This screen would always elecit groans from computer technicians in the early 2000s, because it meant solving the user’s problems was unlikely to be easy.

Released in 2000, Windows Millenium Edition (ME) was the last stop in the line of MSDOS-powered operating systems that had started way back with Windows 95 (or earlier, if you consider DOS versions of Windows previous to 95 ‘operating systems’ even though they often did not start up when the computer booted).

Windows ME (or ‘me’ as Microsoft pronounced it in marketing material, although almost nobody else did) built on features introduced in Windows 98SE, an upgrade of Windows 98, itself an extension of Windows 95. Windows ME adopted much of the enhanced user interface functions Microsoft had designed for the business-oriented Windows 2000 operating system, such as personalised menus, customisable Windows Explorer toolbars, autocomplete, advanced file-type association features, an integrated search pane, additional themes that changed the visual look of Windows, and updated graphical elements (also from Win2K)

Microsoft also attempted to improve a number of facets of Windows including speeding up boot times by removing traditional MSDOS features such as the AUTOEXEC.BAT and CONFIG.SYS, instead embedding essential DOS drivers such as HIMEM.SYS and SMARTDRV.EXE into IO.SYS (one of the main DOS system files). This meant that Windows ME relied on ‘Plug-and-Play’ based peripheral cards, as the ability to load DOS drivers for these devices was restricted (although you could hack ME to bring it back). Many users complained that their legacy devices no longer worked, and their only option was to upgrade.

Microsoft also reduced the number of times Windows accessed the System Registry, which stored internal Windows configuration data. This was problematic, as it meant you could lose registry information in the event of a crash or power failure, leaving the computer in an inconsisent state, which could happen quite frequently due to hardware which used WDM (Windows Driver Model) drivers that had not been properly modified to account for Windows ME’s idiosyncracies – this was sometimes seen even in new computers that had shipped with Windows ME!

And if your computer did crash, not to worry, Microsoft included an automated System Restore feature that was meant to roll-back changes that caused it to crash – except that sometimes it couldn’t roll back, or it couldn’t roll back far enough, and you could end up stuck in a loop you would have to call a technician to come out and fix. Ironically, Windows ME had a lot of features intended to improve stability that ultimately made it unstable!

Aside from operational ‘improvements’, Windows ME also included ‘updated’ versions of applications such as Windows Media Player, which catered better for music, providing ‘jukebox’ (shuffle) functionality, support for CD burning and the ability to transfer songs to portable MP3 players. It also provided the ability to connect to web radio stations. Windows Movie Maker provided simple movie capture and editing capabilities, while Windows DVD player used a software decoder to play back DVDs, something that previously had required a hardware decoder card.

Windows ME also introduced improvements to its networking subsystem including a periodic ‘crawler’ that searched the local network for printers and file servers, a good idea that in practice was less than reliable. However, Microsoft also replaced the Windows TCP/IP “stack” with the one from Windows 2000, making both local network use and Internet use generally more stable, although you were often lucky if you got that far, given Windows ME’s largest issue was crashing on boot, either with a Blue Screen of Death or endlessly boot-looping.

Ultimately the solution to these problems was to either downgrade the user to Windows 98SE (Second Edition), which really wasn’t any less featureful, or upgrade them to the Windows NT (New Technology)-based Windows 2000, at least until a year later when Windows XP was released, making Windows Millennium a short footnote in history – you can’t help but think even Microsoft knew Windows ME was a bad idea, given how quickly they got rid of it!

From 1995 to 2001 Microsoft would release seven different operating systems before taking a break for five years, and then releasing Windows Vista – another nightmare…

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