I've gotten lots of feedback and suggestions about my sudden recent embrace of digital media. It's amazing how many options are available, from digital photo services on the Web to high-end digital cameras that even include support for short videos. Basically, the transition should be pretty easy, regardless of the exact path one chooses. But some of the middleware needs to come together first: It's not that easy to bridge the gap between traditional and digital media. For PC users, the goal is to have an OS that natively supports all of these digital wonders. When Windows NT 4.0 shipped 4 years ago, the OS promised the Windows 95 user experience with NT's reliability and stability. But NT 4.0 failed to offer anything compelling to most end users (i.e., the so-called normal people) unless they restricted themselves to business applications. As the Windows 9x line surged forward with fairly strong consumer-oriented features—epitomized most elegantly by the recent release of Windows Millennium Edition (Windows Me)—NT sat still in a somewhat hazy funk.

Much of the funk had to do with Windows 2000, which took 3 years to come to market. Originally, Win2K was to include a consumer edition that offered Win9x users the oft-promised, best-of-both-worlds OS that Microsoft had talked up for a decade. However, constant delays made such an OS impossible, and we won't see a consumer version of Win2K until late 2001. Code-named Whistler, this product will include an update to Windows Me in addition to Win2K.

But right now, our choices are pretty slim. If you run a fairly modern single-processor PC, Windows Me might be an option. And certainly, the OS has the consumer-oriented pedigree to meet all of the needs of a digital household. Windows Me makes it easy to work with digital music, video, and photographs—virtually everything I discussed last week. But Windows Me is based on the old Win9x code base, so it has many of the instability and reliability problems we associate with Win95 and Windows 98. On the other hand, Windows Me includes some decent solutions to these problems and some cool digital media integration. Most NT users, however, will probably be more comfortable with Win2K, which offers some digital media features with the requisite NT reliability. You have to choose between OSs based on what's most important to you.

But that won't always be the case. The aforementioned Whistler release promises to finally bridge the OS gap. Then this discussion will be largely academic. When Microsoft finally pulls off this transition—late though it might be—it's likely to be one of the company's most under-publicized success stories. But in the hubbub over future technologies and cool "skinnable" user interfaces (UIs), we shouldn't lose sight of the need to support all existing customers with an upgrade strategy. One OS that will upgrade virtually every Windows user out there: Who would have thunk it?