The big question on the minds of Windows road-map watchers these days is whether Microsoft will ship a new version of its desktop operating system to fill the growing gap between Windows XP, which came out in 2001, and the ambitious “Longhorn” release, which probably wont be ready until 2007.
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.
Windows XP Unbound
As a handle for an intermediate Windows release, Microsofts been tossing around the code name XP Reloaded; the press, meanwhile, has dubbed it “Shorthorn.”
What Id like to see is a Windows XP “Unbound.”
First, its important that Microsoft unbind the distribution of new feature additions from that of security fixes to give its corporate customers the stability (and home users the new features) they demand and deserve.
Second, Microsoft needs to drop its ridiculous insistence that complementary applications such as Internet Explorer and Media Player are integral parts of the operating system that must be upgraded via service pack or new operating system release. This strategy is disingenuous and has Microsoft mired in antitrust troubles in Europe over Media Player bundling. It also has needlessly slowed the progress of these applications and has made it tougher for Microsoft to highlight their benefits properly. With the rapid improvements that weve seen in media players and Web browsers from Apple and from the free-software community, can Microsoft really afford to continue constraining itself in this way?
Of course, Microsoft can handle the period between now and Longhorn pretty much any way it chooses and still survive. The companys grip on the market is much too tight for any set of miscues to significantly upset its control.
With that said, Microsoft does face real competition on the desktop for the first time in a long time. Between a resurgent Apple and a fast-moving group of free-software projects backed by the money and market clout of major IT vendors such as Novell and Sun, now is the wrong time for Microsoft to lose sight of its customers needs.
Senior Analyst Jason Brooks can be reached at [email protected].
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