Bill Gates said this week at the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) that the successor to Windows 98 will be a consumer version of Windows NT that the company expects to have ready in 2-3 years. Windows 98 is the last of the old Windows line, he admitted.

"It is the next major release that will get down to a Windows NT 'flavor' for consumers," Gates said. "We are still working out the feature set."

Microsoft's plan is for Windows NT to run on any desktop or server machine while Windows CE will be used in embedded and handheld devices. Even so, Windows CE is becoming more and more like NT with each new release. Using a standard "core" for each of its operating systems saves costs and development time.

To get consumers ready for Windows NT, Microsoft is raising the bar for entry-level consumer machines with its PC99 specification. In this specification, the base amount of RAM in a PC moves from 32 MB to 64 MB, which is far more comfortable for NT. With the rapid decline in RAM prices, this is no longer the problem it would have been a year ago.

While some people may wonder why they should bother with Windows 98 if a new release of NT is only a few years away, Gates argues that 98 fills a valuable role for the time-being. For starters, it will work great with all current desktop machines.

"We took our time to do a major release with Windows 98," Gates said. He believes that Windows 98 is a viable consumer platform for years to come. Most people disagree that Windows 98 is a major release, however, and given its 4.1 version number, its hard to argue otherwise.

And even though Windows 98 is the end of the line, as far as major upgrades go, that product will still be updated occasionally. Microsoft described a "support package" for Windows 98 this week at WinHEC that is due in late 1998. This package, which may be supplied in the form of a service pack, will add new capabilities to Windows 98, such as the ability to hot-swap devices such as CD-ROMs, DVDs, and hard drives through a new slot in the front of computers.

Before consumers embrace Windows NT, it will need to become much easier to use. Carl Stork, general manager for Windows hardware strategy at Microsoft, says that the consumer version of NT will not be identical to the one that businesses get. For example, it will have to be much easier to use, he said