Microsoft Corporation on Thursday released the third and final beta of Windows 2000, its upcoming NT-based operating system for business users. Windows 2000 Beta 3, which will ship in Professional, Server, and Advanced Server editions, will be in the hands of over 650,000 testers over the next 30 days, making it the largest Microsoft beta test ever. This includes 430,000 customers, 140,000 developers and 100,000 channel partners. Microsoft wants as many corporate customers as possible to evaluate this feature complete version of the OS so that they can plan deployment for the final release this fall.

Please note that Windows 2000 is not for home users. As Microsoft notes, "Windows 2000 Professional is designed to be the most reliable mobile and business desktop operating system for organizations of all sizes. Windows 2000 Server combines integrated Web-enabled directory, network and application services with powerful end-to-end management to provide the fastest way to conduct digital business." If you're looking for an upgrade to Windows 98 for game playing, or other casual home use, this isn't it. But Windows 2000 is a huge improvement over Windows NT 4.0, the operating system it will replace.

"The release of Windows 2000 Beta 3 marks an important milestone for our customers and the industry as a whole," said Jim Allchin, senior vice president of the Business and Enterprise Division at Microsoft. "Hands-on experience with the software is the best way for customers to evaluate Windows 2000 with their existing systems and help ensure the quality and deployability of the final release planned later this year."

So what's new in Beta 3? First up is a far wider range of hardware device support (the current Hardware Compatibility List can always be found online), allowing Windows 2000 to interoperate with far more hardware than was previously possible. Windows 2000 won't approach the hardware support of Windows 98, but it will blow Windows NT 4's hardware support out of the water. New power management support (including both ACPI and APM support), fully functioning IntelliMirror and Active Directory, COM+, and integrated Terminal Services are also included. Additionally, Microsoft has been fine-tuning the user interface to make the system more manageable and easy to use.

"The launch of Windows 2000 beta 3 is the prime opportunity for corporations to evaluate and begin planning for broad deployment of Windows 2000," said vice president of marketing Deborah Willingham. "For example, the Corporate Preview Program provides the tools and resources for customers to work with their solution providers to ensure an effective and thorough evaluation of Windows 2000."

The Corporate Preview Program (CPP)--which was announced last week--allows business customers to purchase Windows 2000 Beta 3 along with product support, tools, video courseware and information to install, test and evaluate the new products. The CPP costs about $60 US through the Microsoft Web site.