Is Microsoft Delivering Operating Systems Too Fast Now?

It took Microsoft Corp. more than four years to deliver Windows 2000. Since then, the software giant seems to have set a much snappier pace for operating system releases.

Microsoft came in for brutal and relentless criticism for repeatedly missing self-imposed deadlines on Windows NT 5.0, which then became Windows 2000. After the Windows 2000 release, Microsoft promised a speedier software release cycle with the "Whistler" and "Blackcomb" operating system releases coming on an 18-month to two-year schedule. That was supposed to be in response to customer feedback.

Now some analysts – and more than a few users – are saying that Microsoft could do itself and its customers a favor by reining-in its aggressive product development and marketing timetables.

In October, the software giant rolled out the Windows XP client operating system about a year-and-a-half after the debut of Windows 2000 Professional. It appears that Microsoft is poised to ship Windows .NET Server about two and a half years after launching Windows 2000 Server. And Microsoft has already said that it plans to release another version of Windows – code-named “Longhorn” – sometime in 2003. Finally, there’s “Blackcomb,” originally pegged as the successor to Windows .NET Server (“Whistler”), but scheduled for release sometime after “Longhorn.”

Gavin Burris, a network visualization programmer with the Pennsylvania State University says that while frequent operating system releases might be a boon to Microsoft’s bottom-line, they serve to complicate the jobs of many IT professionals. “[Microsoft has] never caught on [to the fact] that most of us don’t want to upgrade every two or three years, so they keep on pushing new products and features on us,” he grouses.

According to Dan Kusnetzky, ,director of worldwide operating environments with IDC, most IT organizations are still trying to come to grips with the changes introduced in Windows 2000. “Microsoft came out with Windows 2000, which had five years of improvements, and that [kind of a change] makes it much harder for people [to roll-out quickly],” Kusnetzky says. “Now, before people have even finished with their new roll-outs of Windows 2000, they come out with Windows XP and Windows .NET Server.”

To top it all off, says Michael Silver, a vice president and research director with consultancy Gartner, the rapidity with which Microsoft developed and marketed Windows XP actually caused many IT organizations to shelve their Windows 2000 deployment plans. After all, Whistler (the code-name for Windows XP and Windows .NET Server) Beta 1 was released in November 2000, nine months after Windows 2000 shipped; XP itself shipped almost a year later, on October 25, 2001.

“I think that [the rapid XP development cycle] did get a lot of people thinking about [putting off upgrading], and some of them actually did [put off upgrading,” Silver says.

The trouble, says IDC’s Kusnetzky, is that most IT organizations were determined from the outset to wait for the appearance of the first Windows 2000 service pack, which shipped in late July 2000, before they’d even consider deploying the OS.

By the time these organizations began seriously contemplating implementing or migrating to Windows 2000, Kusnetzky says, Microsoft had already released the first Whistler betas. “Microsoft did not do itself a good favor by announcing this software so early in the cycle,” he says.

It was certainly true that Microsoft's Whistler/Windows .NET Server betas were much lower profile affairs than the public betas for Windows 2000. But Microsoft's splitting of the Whistler program into a staggered release with the Windows XP client shipping first followed by the expected shipment of Windows .NET Server several months later added to IT's sense of OS onslaught.

And then there’s the issue of Microsoft’s substantially revamped Licensing 6.0 program, which has had customers’ heads spinning since it was first introduced in May 2001. IDC’s Kusnetzky reports that as a result of Microsoft’s rapid software release cycles and the drastic changes associated with Licensing 6.0, a majority of his company’s clients are genuinely confused about how or even if they’re going to upgrade their enterprise software.

“Some say that they’re not going to do anything until they upgrade to Windows 2000, others say that they’re not going to upgrade at all [12-13 percent] -- and a large number [60 percent] of people say that they’re going to have to figure out what they’re going to do,” Kusnetzky says. “In the meantime, what they have installed is still running.”

In the end, a lot of users say that they’d rather Microsoft concentrate on making Windows 2000 more stable and reliable than continue to develop new feature-packed operating system versions for release.

“They never really have to have a production quality version [of an operating system because] by the time they spend enough effort to get the bugs out of one release, they are ready to release a new beta … OS,” laments Dave Oberholzer, manager of data services for a New York-based risk-analysis company. “I wish … Microsoft would take the time to ‘fix’ one version and let it settle down some.”

Ironically, that's what Windows .NET Server is in a lot of ways. The server operating system includes incremental improvements to the Active Directory, security, stability and reliability. The catch, of course, is that it's not a free service pack, it's an upgrade.

Weigh in on the ENT Discussion question:
Is Microsoft's projected pace of OS delivery every 18-24 months too fast, too slow or about right?
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About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.