Effective immediately, Windows 2000 Corporate Preview Program (CPP) customers in the United States and Canada can order Windows 2000 Professional and Windows 2000 Server Release Candidate 1 (RC1) update CDs, free of charge. Microsoft is covering all product and shipping/handling charges to provide RC1 free to CPP customers. But this isn't an act of goodwill, oh no: After being threatened with legal action from CPP customers, the software giant has relented to avoid a public relations nightmare.

This is the story, a WinInfo exclusive.

It was supposed to be the PR stunt of the year: Offer customers the chance to buy the Windows 2000 Beta at $60 a pop and watch the world flock to its doors. Well, the world did flock to purchase the CPP, but unlike previous CPP experiments, this one went south almost immediately. In an effort to prove that the company listens to its customers, Microsoft set up a peer-to-peer newsgroup support server that gave CPP customers access to actual Microsoft personnel who work on the Windows 2000 team.

Big mistake.

It seems that an early version of Microsoft's CPP Web site stated that customers purchasing the preview would receive "ongoing test versions" for the duration of the beta. Microsoft representatives insisted this wasn't true: only technical beta testers were going to be offered later builds.

Then it got ugly: CPP customers began forwarding URLs that promised future builds, Web pages that had mysteriously changed wording after the CPP began. Testers that had printed out the page announcing the CPP noted that the promise for future releases had been removed. Here's how the original page read:

"Join the Windows 2000 Corporate Preview Program (CPP) and get the Windows 2000 Server beta software. You'll receive ongoing test versions, starting with Beta 3, and all the tools and information you need to install and learn about this product."

Two weeks after the CPP started, that page was changed to read:

"If you don't already have Windows 2000 Server or Windows 2000 Professional Beta 3 code, join the Windows 2000 CPP and you'll receive the tools and information you need to install and evaluate the beta."

When a Microsoft representative lamely explained that the original page had been a "misprint," the already heated discussions headed even further south.

"Odd how \[Windows 2000 technical beta testers\] didn't pay a cent, but get to \[download\] updates \[to Beta 3\], and we who paid over $60 don't get squat... I'm just hoping this helps me get my foot in the door to be a 'official' beta tester (Odd how there has been no response from Microsoft in here?)," one angry CPP customer wrote.

"When I signed up for the program, it was advertised to include updates every 4 to 6 weeks until final release...I expect Microsoft to honor their original solicitation," another tester added. "I paid $59.00 for builds every 4 to 6 weeks. Next week is the \[week of July 4th\] and I am expecting my new build to arrive next week. As a Microsoft stockholder and customer, I don't want to hear any doubletalk about reneging on the original deal."

And then it happened: A tester threatened legal action ("a contract is a contract") and Microsoft caved. Immediately.

"In order to ensure that Windows 2000 Corporate Preview Program customers achieve the greatest success in their evaluation, Microsoft is pleased to confirm that Windows 2000 CPP customers will be provided access to updates when Windows 2000 reaches major milestones," a Microsoft representative informed the group as if it were a novel idea that had just occurred to the company.

Even this didn't stop the complaining, but as of today, those people who did join the CPP have what they want: Access to future builds, starting with Release Candidate 1