Microsoft on Wednesday confirmed that Windows 98 was the last major release of Windows with ties to the 16-bit world, and that future releases would be based on Windows NT. That announcement, and many others dealing with Windows NT and the company's plans for Web development, came at its Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) in Orlando, Florida.

Microsoft has numerous plans afoot, including a 64-bit version of Windows NT that will ship simultaneously with the 64-bit Intel Merced in 1999, a PC99 Design Guide for hardware developers, and a Web multimedia content tool, code-named "Chrome", that is based on DirectX technologies. Microsoft is focusing this year on making their software easier to use across the board, and the company apologized for creating complex systems in the past.

"We build confusing systems," said Senior Vice President Jim Allchin. "The number of questions we get on our support line imply we haven't done a very good job."

Allchin demonstrated a new interim build of Windows NT 5.0 that attendees will receive this week. Windows NT 5.0 supports a slew of features for laptop computers that NT 4.0 did not, including hot docking, hot-swapping of drives and batteries, and more. Windows NT 5.0 laptops will also be able to use the power switch to send the machine into standby mode, rather than turn it all the way off. A feature called "hibernation" writes the contents of memory to disk.

"What is saved to disk stays there for three week, three years, three generations," Allchin said. "This will become the standard way to boot up and shut down."

Also made available to developers this week: the "Chrome" beta. Chrome is a Web multimedia content creation tool that lets developers integrate DirectX technologies into Web sites via new XML tags. Chrome technology will be a key part of Internet Explorer 5.0, though it will require at least a 300 MHz Pentium II machine and an AGP video card.

If that requirement sounds depressing, at least Microsoft is being fairly realistic about base these things now. Consider this comment about Windows NT 5.0:

"If you use 64MB as the standard memory size, we like you," Jim Allchin said. "If you use 128MB, we really like you."

Microsoft provided attendees with the first 64-bit Windows tools as well, including an SDK and DDK that will work with a future version of NT that supports 32-bit or 64-bit code. The tools will allow developers to create one program that works in either environment seamlessly.

Jim Allchin also said that Windows 98 would ship in June, barring any legal problems, and Windows NT 5.0 Beta 2 is expected in the second quarter, which ends June 30. He said that Beta 2 would be feature complete and would be the final beta. Feedback from testers will determine the final release date, which is expected in late 1998 or early 1999