Thanks for the great feedback. Your opinions about online "e-tailers" are as diverse as possible, and one's personal experiences with them are, of course, the deciding factor in choosing where to shop. I received many good suggestions about online shopping, which I'll summarize in a future column closer to the holidays. But many of you had absolute horror stories, suggesting that the online experience still has some growing up to do. Still, we have no excuse for not getting the best price online, and I'll say more about that in the future also.

Microsoft launched its first-generation .NET Enterprise Servers last week in a 2-hour event that was a yawner at best. On the other hand, Microsoft's server lineup is the strongest ever, and—although I might question the ".NET-ness" of the products the company is releasing this fall—I can't help but be impressed. Microsoft comes under a lot of criticism about its Borg-like desire to dominate every conceivable market, but the company does a good job when it sets its collective mind to the task at hand. Products such as Microsoft SQL Server 2000 and Microsoft Exchange 2000 Server really do raise the bar for scalability, and with a 64GB, 32-processor-capable Windows 2000 Datacenter Server standing behind them, Microsoft's products finally have the mettle to compete with the Solarises of the world.

But like the ho-hum launch of Windows Millennium Edition (Windows Me), the .NET Enterprise Server launch was a low-key affair, a satellite broadcast from San Francisco to Microsoft offices around the world. I sat with a largely somber crowd in Microsoft's Boston-area offices on Route 128, fighting sleep with the others. The introductory video offered an interesting contrast to the event to come: We were treated to several clips of a younger Steve Ballmer, shaking his fist, racing across the stage, rousing the troops. But the Ballmer that took the stage for the launch was quieter, as if the weight of the company's legal battles had finally hit home. During pre-event interviews, Ballmer said that he was having a hard time explaining to the press that the day's big event was the Enterprise launch and not the Supreme Court ruling that let Microsoft's antitrust case head to the Appellate Court. I'm not sure which was more important to the future of the company, to be honest.

I've discussed Microsoft's insistence on publicizing .NET to the detriment of Win2K, but with the Datacenter and .NET Enterprise Server launches occurring simultaneously, Ballmer actually gave Win2K ample coverage. If anything, the endless cavalcade of industry supporters for Datacenter was a bit much. We get it: Datacenter's more stable and reliable. Ballmer even went so far as to insult the product that first earned the company its dominant position. Admitting that most people's experiences with Windows at home were less than positive reliability-wise, Ballmer noted that Microsoft has a hard time explaining to people that Win2K is different because it's based on Windows NT, not Windows 9x. Too bad the company changed the name to Win2K, eh?

On a somewhat related note, I recommend an intriguing book I recently read in a single day—which wasn't a huge accomplishment because it's an easy 150-page read. Neal Stephenson's "In the Beginning . . . Was the Command Line" is a stunning tour-de-force for computer users everywhere. Stephenson, who came to fame with the also excellent cyber-thriller "Snow Crash," looks back on his experiences with PCs since the mid-1980s and comes to some interesting conclusions. He says a lot about the Macintosh, Windows, and Linux. And even if you don't agree with everything he writes—I found a few factual errors, for example—his description of the computer industry's caste system is dead-on accurate. I won't give away any more, but if you're drawn to industry analysis, head on out and pick up a copy. I couldn't put it down.

Better yet, you can order the book with Amazon's 1-Click system if you're so inclined. (And you thought I couldn't tie this whole column together!)