UPDATED! The Microsoft "RTM Express" is churning madly this week as the software giant prepares a slew of releases that will usher in the next Consumer Windows and the first service pack for Windows 2000. In a mad bid to maintain its shipping schedules despite its antitrust trial defeat, Microsoft will soon release Windows Millennium Edition (Windows Me) to manufacturing, setting the stage for a summer rollout on new PCs and at retail. But before Windows Me can ship, two key components, Internet Explorer 5.5 and Windows Media Player 7, need to be completed. And IE 5.5 was reportedly signed off on this weekend.

"It looks like build 3406 will be the final release," I was told Saturday, though nervous beta testers were fretting because they have not yet received the build. One tester confided that the same thing happened with IE 5.0: The final release was available publicly before they had received it. Regardless, Microsoft is currently preparing the download directory structure for the English, Canadian, Japanese, and Korean versions of IE 5.5, and build 3406 was made available to Microsoft employees over the weekend. Next up is Windows Media Player 7, which was updated somewhat for the Release Candidate 2 (RC2) build of Windows Me last week, and still has a few more builds to go. Once Windows Media Player 7 is judged to be ship quality, Windows Me will head off to the disk duplicators. Internal Microsoft documents peg the release date of Windows Me as "five weeks after the first release candidate," which occurred on May 9th. If Microsoft hits this schedule, then Windows Me should RTM this week. Of course, Microsoft hasn't hit many OS release schedules recently, and Windows Me has missed several scheduled milestones along the way.

But the company isn't just preparing new consumer releases. Windows 2000 Service Pack 1 (SP1) is due to ship this month as well, and the release is required for such upcoming products as Windows 2000 Datacenter Server and Exchange Server 2000, both due soon. The list of fixes in Windows 2000 SP1 is extensive, and you can see some of the bug fixes it includes on the Microsoft Hot-Fix FTP site. But what's even more interesting is the current list of post-SP1 hot-fixes, which are fixes that will ship in SP2. You can also view this list on the same FTP site.

With these major product rollouts finally occurring, Microsoft can focus on its core next generation products, namely Windows Whistler, Office 10, and Next Generation Windows Services (NGWS). Whistler is expected to hit beta within 30 days, with Windows 2000 testers being moved over to the Whistler32 Tech Beta program (which includes beta versions of Whistler Personal, Whistler Professional, Whistler Server, and Whistler Advanced Server) and Windows Me testers moving to the Whistler Personal Edition beta. The beta for Office 10, the codename for the next major release of Office, will begin in July and Microsoft expects to ship the new suite early next year. But the company's biggest plan revolves around NGWS, which might be renamed to Next Generation Web Services, a plan to move Windows technology from the desktop onto the Internet. The company is planning to hold an oft-delayed NGWS strategy session later this month. But the set of products and services that comprise NGWS are heavily dependant on the next release of Visual Studio, a suite of developer tools that is due to hit an alpha release "later this summer." Microsoft tells me that the next-generation Visual Studio release will enter beta this fall and be released early next year