You need look no further than the swollen feature set planned for XP Service Pack 2 to see that a significant new version of Windows will be upon us within the year. The real question, then, isnt whether an intermediate Windows is on its way but how Microsoft intends to market and distribute it.
Make no mistake: We wont be seeing Longhorn for a while, and thats the way it should be. The delay may disappoint developers working to create applications for Longhorn, but a rushed release wont serve anyones interests. With all the major subsystem changes planned for Longhorn, the operating system will require a very long testing period. Microsoft has bitten off quite a bit for this release, and the company needs plenty of time to chew it.
In the meantime, Microsoft should ship a new version of Windows to fill its yawning road-map void but not in the form of a bloated service pack. Were due for an update to XP on the order of what Windows 98 was to Windows 95—a set of upgrades, fixes and new features that demonstrated that the Windows team had spent at least some of the three years between releases thinking about what it could and should deliver for users.
Microsoft is set to provide some of these improvements in XP Service Pack 2, but service packs are a poor way to roll out significant operating system changes. I hope that the new service pack is just that, with significant changes coming in the form of an XP upgrade.
Companies interested in obtaining the many megabytes of security fixes that have piled up since XP shipped dont want service packs stuffed with new, potentially bug-bearing features—particularly when many of these features are consumer-oriented (such as whatever Microsoft is planning to do to its Media Player to make it more iTunes-like). Whats more, Microsoft needs to make the companies that have paid for Software Assurance—the licensing plan that ensures free updates during its term—feel like theyre getting something for their money.