When Microsoft unveils a new operating system, it is usually with a fanfare of Babylonian proportions. But the new version of Windows 98 -- Windows 98 SE, or "Second Edition" -- is slinking in with an eerie quiet.
Perhaps that's because this version of Windows wasn't supposed to exist at all. Microsoft had originally suggested in 1997 that Windows 98 would be the end of the line for the vast but dilapidated House that DOS Built. Then, Microsoft's consumer and business customers would both be herded toward the new Windows NT 5.0, which was originally supposed to ship in 1998 but was delayed and renamed Windows 2000. Then the release of Windows 2000 itself was delayed, and Microsoft decided that there actually will be a "consumer edition" of Windows 2000 as a continuation of the Windows 95-98 line, after all.
If you got all that straight, now Microsoft has Windows 98 SE for you. The main features of this "upgrade" are better Universal Serial Bus support, support for modem sharing, and the latest editions of the Internet Explorer browser and other free Microsoft products. Plus the usual assortment of bug fixes.
Windows 98 SE, in other words, is what Microsoft used to call a "service pack" and give away free. (Except when it didn't -- as with the "OSR2" release of Windows 95, which contained upgrades you could obtain if you bought a new computer or were a computer reseller, but not if you just wanted to upgrade your own computer.) Of course, Microsoft will still give you a bug fix service pack for free; but if you want the full Win 98 SE upgrade package, including Internet Explorer 5.0, Net Meeting and Media Player 6.1 -- all of which are available for free separately -- you can pay $19.95.
At this point in its operating-system history, Microsoft has created a labyrinth that rivals Apple at its mid-1990s worst -- when Macintosh users had to figure out what the hell "System 7.5.3 rev. 2" meant. Maybe Windows 2000 will straighten all this out. Just don't hold your breath.