Microsoft Needs to Overhaul Prerelease Cycle

Opinion: Releases every one to three years would keep users and developers more engaged in improving Windows.

Microsofts long prerelease cycle—early hype, alpha release, feature cutbacks, beta releases, tweaks, final release—has become business as usual for IT users, who have come to expect that "final release" really means "work in progress." We believe the time has come for Microsoft to look at new ways to serve its vast and loyal user base.

Four years into its prerelease cycle as "Longhorn," Windows Vista Beta 1 was released late last month. The early look at Vista was somewhat encouraging, in particular, the new search and browsing features. These improvements, however, have been made at the cost of removing Next-Generation Secure Computing Base, the WinFS advanced file system, and Microsoft Business Framework, among other features. And, as we reported last week, Microsoft officials said the Beta 1 feature set is far from final. Although Microsoft is staying close to its projected timeline leading to a ship date late next year, officials indicated the company may drop more features before then, possibly adding them later.

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Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has made delivering value a corporate mission, and he has stated that the companys commercial business model, including its extended prerelease feedback periods, delivers more value to customers than Linux and open-source software. For users, IT administrators and developers who have had to endure Microsofts prerelease cycles for more than a decade, it is time to re-evaluate whether Microsoft is delivering as much value as it could and should.

We are not saying Microsoft should not have an extensive beta program, with close relationships with its beta tester and developer communities. But we do think the company can give its enterprise customers something better: a service model that offers enhancements more promptly, predictably and manageably than the process in place today.

Software Assurance is Microsofts plan to ease volume purchasing, but its also used to get customers to upgrade to the newest versions of software.

A true service model would let the company add features to a base operating system as they are ready, for users who want them. Releasing updates early and often in the testing phase would help users integrate changes and improvements more quickly. This is particularly important when it comes to delivering security fixes and other patches.

Even if the vendor does not provide such a service or subscription model, Microsoft officials have said they want shorter release cycles between major updates. Microsoft should at least do that. Releases every one to three years, rather than five or six, would keep users and developers more engaged in improving Windows and integrating it into the enterprise.

The contest between open-source and commercial software is a healthy one for enterprise IT. The rivalry spurs each to make itself better. In its quest to deliver greater value, we believe Microsoft should go beyond its timeworn prerelease cycle and try new approaches.

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