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December 20, 2001 - Vol. 1, Issue No. 18
By Scot Finnie
IN THIS ISSUE
The specific update released today is explained the document titled Unchecked Buffer in Universal Plug and Play can Lead to System Compromise. Apparently the compromise is pretty serious, potentially tantamount to sitting a hacker at your keyboard. This literally came to me as I was wrapping up the newsletter, so I haven't had a chance to test it. But the level of concern at Microsoft is higher than usual. I recommend you install this one in the near future.
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I first had that experience about six years ago with Netscape Navigator. For the last several years, I've been a confirmed Internet Explorer man. Ever since the 4.0 version.
Opera 6.0 is every bit as good a browser — and in some ways, it's the best browser that ever was. Like IE 5.0, which was the first browser to become totally fun to drive for me, Opera 6.0 is fluid in motion. It's fast. Faster than anything else. Click the Back button is still instantaneous. No waiting. Sitting behind Opera's windshield on the Web can make you feel giddy.
I've always liked Opera. Almost exactly a year ago I placed it on Winmag.com's WinList, and made it the Windows Insider Program of the Month.
But 6.0 goes beyond the features. I named Opera 5.0 a top product as an alternative browser. I no longer think of it as "alternative." We're finally back to a two-horse race among Web browsers. Opera has matured, it's improved, and mellowed. The rough edges are gone. It's not perfect, to be sure. But there's another positive that I can tell you about. Opera Software, the company, has also matured. It is listening better to North American customers (and, indeed, probably customers worldwide) than it once did. That's very important. That's how Microsoft got where it is. Nevermind that the Redmond folks seem to have forgotten that practice. Because Opera is listening and trying to react to suggestions, I am much more confident than I used to be that this product will become even better on Windows desktops. (It probably already is the best browser for Linux.)
— What About Netscape? —
I got a lot of discouraged and even angry email from the last issue when I wrote that I no longer considered Netscape 6.x worthy of review. Many just wrote to tell me that Netscape 6.2.1 is out, and is better — and that I should try that before I make up my mind. Fair enough. I'd forgotten about 6.2. Just a slip of the tongue, because it was the version installed on my machine. (I think that was right around the time my baby was born, so please forgive my temporary inattention.) But I asked Netscape about the differences between 6.1 and 6.2, and they're negligible. So, Netscape fans, I'm sorry to say that my comments stand. I prefer Netscape 6.x to Netscape 4.x on every point but one: rendering Web pages as they were meant to be rendered. Netscape 4.x is excellent at that. In all other regards, I prefer Netscape 6.x. But I feel that this browser is still not ready for prime time. It will very likely be ready with the next major version of the product, and I will consider it then.
End Netscape interlude, and back to Opera. There's a good long list of new features. And I'm going to cover some of those. But to be honest, most of what matters feature-wise showed up in Opera 5.0. Opera 6.0 is the refinement version, like IE 5.0. It's still not as jam-packed with features as Internet Explorer. But it's also much smaller, much lighter, much faster.
— What's New And Improved in Opera 6.0 —
My whirlwind tour of the best new features of Opera 6.0 starts with the option to disable the MDI (multiple document interface) mode that many reviewers — including yours truly — have criticized Opera for in past. Windows 95 essentially took the MDI idea, and created an operating system UI around it. The taskbar contains footprint tabs for all running application windows, and you can switch among the apps by clicking on those tabs on the taskbar. Opera comes with its own built-in taskbar-like area. You can open multiple browser windows that are contained within the browser's overall window. That's MDI. Or if you prefer not to work that way (and most Windows applications do not), you can opt to have each browser window instance put its footprint down on the Windows taskbar instead (also called SDI, for single document interface). Excellent solution. I'm glad the company has listened, and solved the problem.
Here's the irony. I find myself using the MDI interface instead. I've grown accustomed to it. It's different from working with IE, where you have a blizzard of separate IE programs open. Also, the Hotlist (bookmarks) isn't dockable when MDI is turned off, and I'm not a big fan of floating items, which always seem to get lost behind a window somewhere. Each approach has its advantages though. I'm glad Opera provides both options.
The SDI version also has a new Pagebar, which lets you keep track of visited pages and helps you launch windows.
IE users have the Links bar, a customizable toolbar where you can place one-click links to frequently accessed websites. Now Opera has a counterpart, the Personal Bar. Good deal. You can't drag and drop the URL for a currently open page on the Personal Bar though. Nor can you right-click the Personal Bar and add a new item to it. Those limitations seem like notable oversights.
Although bookmarking has long been an Opera weakness, the programmers have improved this facility bit by bit. In the 6.0 release, they've added the powerful ability to both search and sort the Hotlist. That makes it much easier to find bookmarks. It's an advantage the competition doesn't offer. I also found IE importation to work very well. The browser suite is capable of importing both Netscape and IE bookmarks, as well as Outlook Express and Eudora email, among other things. You can also drag and drop bookmarks from the Hotlist not just to the Opera browser window, but also to the Personal Bar.
Opera has always been great about keyboard shortcuts, but 6.0 has even more. Habitual mouse users will also be intrigued by Opera's extensive list of "mouse gestures," many of which are keyboard + mouse combinations that offer significant shortcuts for common tasks. Definitely check this out (and see the Opera 6.0 Help facility for a better list).
The Opera 6.0 interface is new. It supports multiple skins, or looks, and also the Preferences area has been completely reorganized. You can just press F12 to open a brief Quick Preferences menu now too.
You can now double-click any highlighted word or phrase displayed in the Opera window and get dictionary definitions, encyclopedia elaboration, translation, and other functions, most of which are supplied by Lycos.com.
To check out the rest of what's new in the new Opera, read its official list of new features. And for a detailed list of everything that changed or was added, see the Opera 6.0 Changlog.
Opera 6.0 carries over the many powerful features of previous versions. It's fast. No kidding. IE 6.0 is fast too. Opera is a bit faster at average pages than IE. It's a toss up on more complex pages. I have seen pages that IE 6.0 loaded faster. But overall, Opera is a speed demon. It's small. If you skip the Java Runtime, you can download it as 3.2MB self-extracting file. Yet it includes an excellent browser, a pretty good email package, and ICQ instant messaging. It's highly multiplatform with separate versions for BeOS, Linux/Solaris, Mac, OS/2, QNX, Symbian OS, and ... oh yes ... Windows. Opera offers better accessibility features than any browser I'm aware of. It's not perfect in this regard; I'm not sure any application could be so. But Opera Software has long been a leader in bringing accessibility features to software.
— What Still Isn't Right —
You may be surprised by how many things are still on my wish list. I want to thank the SFNL readers who wrote to me over the last few weeks and described their experiences with 6.0 for at least half of these observations. There are too many names to list, but the folks who help me review products are very important to this newsletter — because they're helping not just me but the entire subscriber base (which is growing and growing). So, anyway ... Dear Opera Software, please consider addressing these issues with Opera for Windows (if not all versions) in the near future:
Toolbar size in the ad-supported version. It's true, the unregistered version of Opera 6.0 has a giant toolbar because the advertising window is housed within the toolbar. It takes up a ton of screen real estate. For a peek at a product that manages to add an advertising window without killing off a lot of usable space, look at Eudora 5.x. But ad-window notion is a much harder proposition in a browser where the Web window is the thing and the rest is window dressing. Literally.
Disclosure time: I'm testing with the registered version. If I were to decide on Opera as my only browser, and I didn't have the registration code routinely extended to software reviewers, I would spend the 39 bucks to register Opera. Anyone who is using Opera exclusively should consider doing that anyway. It's a small enough price to pay to support the developers who are making future improvements to the browser.
Page-Display Fidelity. My biggest gripe with Opera is that it still doesn't display pages exactly like IE or Netscape 4.x. Let me add that it is much improved, even over Opera 5.0. Even so, Netscape 6.x does a slightly better job of this than Opera. Every once in a while you'll stumble across a Web page that looks funny in Opera. That's separate and apart from the issue that some websites block Opera when it identifies itself as Opera (instead of spoofing its identity as being IE 5.0). That's a whole other thing that isn't usually Opera's fault. If Opera can display a page correctly when it's identifying itself as IE 5.0 but not when it's identifying itself as Opera 5.0, then that's the website's fault. I'm still looking for examples with specific URLs of websites that do that. Please send them to me. I'm working on a story about this.
The Bookmarking Tools. Bookmarking, though it has improved, is still a long way from what IE users are used to. You can't drag and drop a URL from Opera's address bar and drop it on the desktop to create an IE style Favorite icon. You can't drag and drop from the address bar into your Bookmarks menu, as you can with Netscape and IE. And you can't right-click an open Web page and choose "Create Shortcut" to put a Favorite-style icon on your desktop.
These criticisms were offered by several readers. Interestingly, I had the exact same problem during the late beta phase for Opera 6.0 (a couple months ago) and I wrote to the company's CEO, Jon von Tetzchner. Jon responded by saying he thought these functions could be added to an upcoming version. Let's hope that occurs.
Problems with Web Forms. Opera seems to have difficulties with Web forms. I've noticed this on my own website, where virtually every other browser renders my Subscribe and Unsubscribe Web form boxes the same way (or almost). But Opera's rendition is very different. SFNL reader Cathy Williams has also had Web form issues. She writes: "I was trying to fill out a Web form the other day, but I kept getting the message that ____________ is blank; fill it in. When I filled it in with the requested information, I just kept getting an error message. I finally gave up and revisited the page with IE 6.0 and filled in the form without problem."
Reliability. Some people are reporting crashing behaviors with Opera 6.0. Either it takes a long time to load and/or it crashes after use. I've gotten this feedback from a handful of SFNL readers. I haven't seen it myself. One person who wrote to me believes there's a significant memory leak in the 6.0 release.
I asked Opera about this and the response was that the company believes that Opera 6.0 is as reliable as any version of the browser they ever done. And in my experience, that means it's very reliable. There are always issues with every software version, no matter how good a job the developers do. But it bears watching. Opera Software is already hard at work on the 6.01 version, which I have beta for. So far it's just tweaks and things. And I have no word on when it'll be delivered.
Dial-up Performance. Some 56kbps or slower dial-up users report that Opera is slower than IE 6.0 in that setting. (Although others says say it's faster.) It's almost a universal experience with broadband and T1 connections that Opera is generally faster than IE on typical Web pages.
Print Preview Is Buggy. Sometimes it doesn't work. Although some readers report not being able to make Page Preview work at all, I have been able to get it to work. But I have seen instances where it didn't work. Something is amiss there.
Printing Problems. Issues with printing are quite common in Opera 6.0 — something its makers admit. Many people report printing problems, although it prints fine to my old HP LaserJet 5MP.
Secure Internet Services. A few people note that they are unable to login to secure pages for specialized online services, such as online banking, portfolio management, money paying services, and the like. All those things work fine for me.
— When Push Comes to Shove —
It should come as no surprise to anyone that I'm naming Opera 6.0 as an Scot’s Newsletter Top Product. Only a few short years ago, Opera was a novelty. And, okay, Microsoft has an almost insurmountable marketshare, but that's largely determined by people who don't choose their own browser. Opera is on the rise, in a big way. If you haven't tried it, you're missing out on an essential computing experience. With Opera 6.0, Opera is absolutely for real.
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The nearly 18MB download has installed absolutely flawlessly for me on five separate PCs. So far I've tested it with Windows 98, Windows 98 Second Edition, Windows XP, and Windows 2000.
I've heard only one report of trouble with Office XP SP1 (so far). A regular SFNL reader based in Saudi Arabia and some of his friends ran into trouble with SP1 on Windows 2000 machines. The trouble manifests itself as an error message about a file in a temporary folder during installation. So far I've been unable to duplicate the problem.
Office XP Service Pack 1 includes all updates previously released for Office XP. It also adds some newer security patches. According to Microsoft, even if you've already installed some of these updates, Service Pack 1 should install properly on your machine.
The three links below provide all the information you need to both install SP1 and understand what it's all about. The first link in particular is key. Windows 2000 users should see the Knowledgebase article too.
I recommend you download the patch first and then install it as a separate process. Microsoft recommends the opposite, for what it's worth.
Bottom line: Go ahead and install this service pack.
About the Windows 98 patch for Word 2002 (Office XP) users whose operating systems are Windows 98 and Win98SE: Hang tight. I've had further communication that this is in the works now that Office XP SP1 is out the door. And I'll keep you posted. Hopefully by the next issue I'll be able to give you the final information about that.
— Office XP Review —
A couple of months back, I promised SFNL readers a targeted review of Office XP. I never intended to do a full fledged review of this enormous product, which I haven't formally covered since Office 95. But I did plan to give you a Scot’s-eye view of Office XP containing insights about what I like and don't like.
I can tell you this, Office XP is fast becoming my standard version of Office. I skipped Office 2000 entirely, but I like Office XP. I hate the activation malarkey. And there are some other flaws. But overall, it's the best version of Office to date.
So, I still hope to itemize the flaws, and point out the good points in a future review of the office suite. But I'll give you the punch line now: It's worth the upgrade.
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Unfortunately, while the December 21, 2000 Broadband Report story on this subject still exists, the poll itself has disappeared. Most of the Winmag content is still available, but some things are not, and polls are among the missing. If you want to find the huge store of Winmag.com content that still exists, check the Find Winmag Content page on the Scot’s Newsletter website.
I'd like to make the broadband poll a tradition. So I'm asking the question again. Please choose the following answer that most closely matches the availability of broadband Internet access in your town (regardless of whether or not you subscribe).
I would appreciate it if you would let me know in the body of the email message what part of the world you're in. Ideally this would be the name of your town and your state, province, or country. Please feel free to write other comments that pertain, but don't expect a response from me. The question:
What kind of broadband Internet access services are available in your home town?
Please read the answers carefully, and choose only one. Then click the link to open your email package and send a message. If you use Web mail, send a message to firstname.lastname@example.org, using the words after the equal sign (such as "Broadband_DSL+Cable+Satellite") as your message subject. Otherwise your vote won't be counted.
I'll report on the results in a future issue of the newsletter.
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Online retailers share many of the same problems that catalog retailers do. In fact, many "pure play" (or online only) retailers also mail catalogs. One of the lessons of the last year or two is that pure play online stores may not be the best idea in the world. Amazon.com and Buy.com may make it, but many others have not, or will not. Bricks and clicks combined is the safest course.
A lot of people are wondering whether 2001's online holiday sales are going in the dumper, or whether they'll surprise us all with a last-minute surge as they did last year. A dedicated online buyer myself, I think there's reason to be optimistic. But if sales aren't so rosy, online retailers have more than 9-11 and the recession to blame. They should blame themselves. Because they still don't get what they have to do to succeed.
Here are the top 10 reasons why online retailers aren't selling as much as they could be:
10. People are afraid they won't be able to return the products if they don't like them. Return policies should be posted prominently on websites, and orders should come with step-by-step instructions on how to return products. A UPS call-tag service, or other means of making the return shipping cheaper and easier for customers would go a long way toward ringing up sales with first-time customers especially.
Two examples that are worth mentioning. Lands' End has been making returns easy as heck for years and years. There's retailer that has smartly learned that making returns extremely easy garners more sales, not less: Home Depot. You can return just about anything to Home Depot, months and months later, no questions asked. All you need is your receipt. You don't have to fill out a form or even have the credit card you paid with. When I'm at Home Depot, which is often, I find myself buying things I might not ordinarily buy because in the back of mind I know I can always return it. And I do make returns there, but believe me, Home Depot is way ahead of the game with me.
9. Sales taxes and shipping charges should never, ever be a secondary profit center. In fact, some online retailers have started charging "sales" tax that weren't charging for it before. When you add sales tax to the shipping charges, buying online can be expensive. I feel ripped off as a customer when I find the lowest price and then I place the order and realize that I've been had. (As much as I like Buy.com, I've had that experience there.) Consumers aren't stupid. Fool them once, yes. But do you want them to come back?
8. The main reason to buy online is convenience. For many experienced buyers, the bigger convenience isn't that they don't have to schlep out to some mall, find parking, and spend hours shopping. The big benefit is that it's easier to get information about products you're going to buy on the Web than it is in the store. That's why computers, electronics, software, and hard goods of all kinds sell well on the Internet. Apparel, large items like furniture (whose scope is hard to see on the flat screen), huge ticket items (cars, for example) don't sell well. Use the strengths of the medium. One of those is that it teaches better than your average sales rep.
7. Tell customers when you're going to ship it! Overnight delivery is only great if you're shipping it today, not two or three days from now — or next week. To support that, online stores need real-time online inventory. I want to know an item is in stock before I commit my order. If you wait a week and then tell me it's out of stock, I will probably never purchase from you again. Northern Tools did this to me last summer. I ordered something I needed to go on vacation with. The company promised me shipment of the product on X date and I paid for delivery so that it would come a week earlier than I needed it. The shipment arrived one day before my vacation, and they'd sent me the wrong part. So I had to go out to the store and buy it. Why would I ever order from these guys again? They weren't even nice about it.
6. Some companies use online order tracking. All companies should. Not only does it cut down on customer service calls and email, but it makes buyers feel secure about the process.
5. Make gift wrapping free. Many stores do. Instead, what I see is that gift wrapping for online purchases has actually gotten more expensive this year. The going rate seems to be $6. Also, many e-tailers don't let you gang up several items into one box and pay only to wrap that one. (L.L. Bean is an exception.) Amazon.com, for example, should figure this out. I buy three books as a present for one person. Why should I pay $18 to wrap them? There's no point in my paying shipping charges twice on a present. I might as well have Amazon send it direct. But I'm not placing the order at all if I have to pay three times the gift-wrapping charge.
4. Order enough product, and make sure it's in stock when customers need it. Too many retailers and e-tailers pulled back this year. That doesn't help sales. There's nothing more frustrating that trying to buy a Christmas tree stand the first week of December only to find out that they're all sold out. I find this infuriating when it comes to apparel. Why the heck would I want to buy bathing suits in March and winter coats in August? It makes no sense. Just in time marketing, please.
3. No matter what the Federal Trade Commission says, don't shorten the holiday buying season by making the cut-off date for guaranteed holiday delivery Dec. 20 or 21. That's crazy. These are the biggest selling days of the year for bricks and mortar stores. Instead of pulling back, spend the money on IT systems and shipping solutions that will get the job done. Don't over-promise either. Get it right.
2. People hate junk mail, right? Wrong. People hate getting catalogs they don't want. They love getting catalogs they do want. That's a tough distinction for catalogers, who also have to send out catalogs to customers who haven't ordered from them before, otherwise their businesses would never grow.
But do customers really need a catalog every three weeks all year long? And should they receive His and Hers copies of the same catalog every three weeks? That's what happens at my house with Lands' End, for example. We've called them in an effort to save paper, but the Lands' End computer system is unable to handle the fact that two people with different last names who live at the same address don't need two catalogs. I just routinely recycle at least one of every Lands' End catalog that comes in. That should be a crime. Catalog companies bear a responsibility that many are not living up to. They should use paper more frugally.
1. Use email to work with customers. Sending out an order confirmation isn't enough. A customer should be able to reply to an order confirmation and have a reply come back from a real person with at least a first name within half an hour. Probably 95 percent of the people buying online have email. The customer service telephone number, the order number, and online order-tracking URLs should all be offered in order-confirmation emails.
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Both AOL and Microsoft were potential suitors in this dance, with Microsoft showing up at the party mostly to keep AOL from grabbing a huge chunk of the broadband pie. I don't blame Microsoft for that. AOL is the biggest monopoly concern I have right now.
But I'm also a bystanding consumer whose broadband connection will swing on this deal. I'm an AT&T Broadband customer in a town that AT&T hasn't yet rolled out cable modem service to. First it promised spring of 2001, then spring of 2002. Several towns bordering mine have had cable modem service for three, four, or even five years. I have a slow SDSL connection that costs over $100 a month. I've been waiting over two years for the local cable company (it was Cablevision, but they sold to AT&T about a year ago) in my town to actually offer cable modem service. It's been like ... Waiting for Godot. This sale could well mean the end of waiting without any specific delivery date.
You might think I'd welcome Microsoft's small part in this Comcast deal. Quite the contrary. I think Microsoft is the single worst nationwide ISP in the U.S. Even though I've been fairly anti-AOL (like many experienced users) over the years, I prefer AOL, sub-standard email and all, to MSN. Microsoft has a lot to learn about being a service business.
My concern has been that Microsoft would try to force AT&T Broadband (or AT&T Comcast when the deal eventually goes through) to use Microsoft software and services. And I suppose that still could happen, but I doubt it. Microsoft's $5 billion involvement doesn't buy any guarantees there.
So I'm breathing a big sigh of relief. More than that, despite the fact that AT&T Comcast will be the largest cable company in the U.S., I think this is a good deal. AOL Time Warner is the second largest, and I believe Cox is the third largest. Healthy competition. I like that in an industry. Don't you? Although one thing I would say is that broadband users can expect more consolidation.
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The heck of it is, literally scores of you wrote to tell me about my own tip, written in the now defunct Windows Insider newsletter from the summer of 1999. Microsoft has long maintained a somewhat incomplete version of Windows Update aimed at corporate users. It doesn't do automatic installs. You won't find every update and fix available on Windows Update, but what you do find there (about 75 percent of the updates), you can download and save for installation later. Here's the page that at least 40 or 50 of you wrote to remind me about:
For Windows 98 users, there's a variation on the same idea that I think you might like:
The kinds of things that go missing on these "corporate" download pages are more consumer oriented goods, such as updates to Windows Media Player and DirectX. So, to make amends, here are the links to the home pages of those products:
Finally, if you're shrewd about it, it is possible to save at least some of the installing files for Windows Update patches. This is something I've done myself from time to time. SFNL reader Aydin Cil explains:
There is a way to save the Windows Update files for later installation. When WU is downloading a file, is opens a hidden temporary directory on your hard drive. It's always called WUTemp under Windows XP Pro and it's located in your root directory (usuall C:\). [This location differs under different Windows versions, and also from patch to patch.] When the download is finished, that file is not immediately deleted. It stays there until the installation is complete, which gives you enough time to copy it somewhere else. This way, I have been able to take a copy of all my WU downloads. —Aydin Cil of Istanbul, Turkey
Response: I have found this works a lot of the time, but not all the time. Some patches, especially smaller ones, do not work exactly the same way. Also, you have to find and copy the installer files before installation completes — which is sometimes tricky. Still, Aydin is by and large correct. —S.F.
I will endeavor to never, ever make mistakes in the future — and most certainly will fail in the attempt. But I will always correct myself. That you can count on.
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Many of you are aware that I worked at Winmag.com during the late 90's and until it folded in March of this year. You may not know the Editor-in-Chief of Winmag.com (after it became an online-only enterprise). His name is Paul E. Schindler Jr., and like everyone else connected with Winmag, he's a good guy.
Paul recently wrote a column on a subject that SFNL readers have often asked me about: How to port Outlook Express files from one computer to another, and even work with multiple computers running Outlook Express. Check this out. I know it's going to help Outlook Express users:
Check out Paul Schindler's personal website too. He does a column there that you may find interesting.
Another helpful series comes from TheRegister.com, written by Thomas Greene (of at-loggerheads-with-Steve-Gibson fame). Thomas's Do-It-Yourself-Anonymity story and follow-up could really help you understand some things:
Have you discovered a relatively unknown Windows- or broadband-oriented website that everyone should know about? Please send me the URL, and let me know why you liked it.
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This is something I knew; it's even been printed in the newsletter before. (Sleep is more important than most of us realize.) Windows 2000 very definitely does not contain System Configuration Utility (MSCONFIG.EXE). In case you're wondering, MSCONFIG originated in Windows 98. It's a useful utility for controlling a variety of advanced Windows settings. But it's especially useful for temporarily disabling background programs that launch automatically at Windows start.
Microsoft forgot to include this handy little tool in Windows 2000, but they remembered to put it in Windows XP. And thanks to Michael R. King for pointing out that the XP version runs on Win2000. Some items will be grayed out under Windows 2000, but by and large it's functional there. You can just search your Win XP installation for MSCONFIG.EXE and copy that file to Win2000. I've tested this personally (though not extensively), and it appears to work.
Because the error clearly struck a nerve among Windows 2000 users, I decided to check in with Microsoft on whether it might consider releasing the 142K XP executable as a quick download for Windows 2000 users. I also offered to host it if they didn't want to do it officially. They declined both offers. So, I'm afraid I can't offer Win2K users any direct help on this point. But the knowledge may help some of you.
Warning: I'd be surprised if there weren't at least some trouble you could get yourself into running XP's MSCONFIG under Win2K. Proceed at your own risk. This thing does make minor edit changes to the Registry. If anyone tries it and runs into a problem, I'd like to know about it.
By the way, don't try the Win98 version under Win2000.
Do you have a Windows or broadband tip you think SFNL readers will like? Send it along to me, and if I test it and print it in the newsletter, I'll print your name with it.
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