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In May, Windows 98 reached an important milestone: Its developers declared the software code finished and Microsoft released the operating system to manufacturing. On June 25, Windows 98 will appear on store shelves. On that Thursday, Microsoft -- along with hundreds of industry partners from PC manufacturers to software retailers -- will celebrate the arrival of the newest version of Windows.
Here's a good question: If Windows 98 was "released to manufacturing" in mid-May, why won't it be available on store shelves until June 25? What takes so long?
The answer is the subject of this field trip. The map on this page follows the journey Windows 98 will make between the time the code was finished and the time it appears on computers or in boxes at your local retail store. (If you'd like to explore what happens before the code is finished, see From Windows 95 to Windows 98.)
Milepost 1: Deliver Golden Code
On May 18, the Windows 98 code is declared "golden" and officially released to manufacturing. Special copies of Windows 98 are set up specifically for PC vendors to use for installation on new machines. The golden copies are sent express mail to PC vendors -- every minute between now and June 25 is precious. They have a ton of work to do before they can begin shipping computers with the latest version of Windows.
Milepost 2: Build New Machines
Once manufacturers receive their copies of the golden code, each then begins a detailed process of putting the Windows software files together with other software that will be included on the various lines of computers they sell. For example, some vendors will put together a slightly different set of software for use on their laptop machines than for their desktop computers. Each combination of software and hardware needs to be tested before the manufacturer can begin mass-producing PCs that include the software.
Hardware manufacturers aren't the only ones gearing up production lines to use Windows 98. So are the printing companies that supply manuals, certificates, registration cards and other related materials that go with the new operating system. While the PC vendors are busy building new hardware, the printing companies are equally busy chugging out the associated packages of information that will be tucked into the shipping cartons with new computers. Once the materials arrive at the PC packing facilities, PC vendors can send new machines down the road toward retail stores.
Milepost 3: Press CDs
Meanwhile, as hardware manufacturers install Windows 98 on new computers, another flurry of activity is under way. That operation generates copies of the new operating system for use on existing computers. The first step in this process is for manufacturers to "press" Windows 98 CD ROM discs that are used in the boxed version of the software. That brings us back to the paper and ink part of the process.
Milepost 4: Build Boxed Retail Software
While the CD ROM manufacturers are stamping out discs, another group of printing and packaging companies are producing the manuals, certificates, and packaging required for the boxed editions of Windows 98 software distributed through retail outlets. You may have seen this process on TV when Windows 95 was being produced. People working on conveyer lines stuff CD's, manuals, certificates, and other materials into bright blue boxes, which are then shrink-wrapped. Stacked onto pallets, piles and piles of Windows 98 boxes are then sent on their way to distributors, for the next to last leg of their journey.
Milepost 5: Deliver PCs and Software to Retailers
Some retailers operate from storefronts while others operate via mail order. Still others are cropping up on the Internet. Regardless of the means by which these companies reach out to you, all but the largest retailers rely on distributors to supply the product to stock their shelves. Distributors buy enormous quantities of hardware and software from manufacturers. They then "break bulk" and ship smaller quantities out to retail outlets. These largely hidden businesses play a crucial role by helping speed the flow of product from a few massive production facilities out to thousands of retail outlets.
Milepost 6: Home at Last
When June 25 arrives, all the attention will focus on the launch-day events. Meanwhile, those who worked behind the scenes to make launch day a reality will have begun focusing on the next shipping product, quietly working their magic once again.