Long, Longer, Longhorn

Opinion: Microsoft would better serve customers with more frequent updates.

What will Microsofts role be in the it industry of 2010? Thats far off, but on the way to that time, Microsoft will release its "Longhorn" version of Windows. That milestone will go a long way toward determining the largest software companys stature in the IT pantheon for the rest of this decade and beyond.

Microsoft has been discussing Longhorn for the past year and a half, first as a client system, then as both client and server, and most recently as a focal point of the next big wave of development—the integration of Microsoft operating system, database and application technologies around Microsoft .Net Web services tech-

nologies. The few known specifics include a new Windows File System and a new compositing system. In short, although ill-defined and with no specific shipping date, Longhorn is the next big thing for Microsoft.

With Longhorn as a platform, Microsoft will conduct user dialogue and beta tests for the next two years to determine the final shape of its next-generation technologies. This discussion-beta-test- revision cycle has become a traditional approach for Redmond. While some say this practice freezes the market, thereby inhibiting competition, Microsoft executives point out, accurately, that customers earnestly desire information about product directions. In providing that data, the reasoning goes, the company helps customers plan IT investments. In using customers as a sounding board, Microsoft also gets valuable data about what customers want.

This procedure has been used for Microsoft products for two decades. But will it work for Longhorn, keeping users in the fold while Microsoft cooks its latest product? Things are different now. No longer is Microsoft mainly competing with itself or a feeble OS/2. A resurgent Macintosh operating system, OS X, continues to draw interest. More important, Microsoft has a low-cost competitor, Linux, which boasts a community process that, while different, is parallel to its own—and arguably more agile in responding to day-to-day discoveries of opportunities, not to say critical needs, for improvement in areas such as security.

Microsoft would better serve customers with a shorter window of disclosure for more frequent updates rather than continuing its practice of endless disclosure, discussion and revision of goals. Too much talk makes Microsoft seem not to know where technology is headed. In addition, Microsoft has put as many customers as possible on its Software Assurance subscription plan. While touting big customer benefits from the plan, Microsoft cant even say with certainty that a three-year contract will include the next big product release.

Linuxs success thus far has been about action, not talk. Microsofts release strategy must be similarly action-oriented. If not, Microsofts industry stature in 2010 is likely to be far less than it is now.

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