With Yukon Delay, Microsoft Product Roadmap Credibility Questions Emerge

I could make a career out of charting the purported release schedules for Microsoft products, assuming someone would be willing to pay me for it. Almost every week, we receive news about another Microsoft product delay. Charting the software giant's release schedules, however, isn't as simple as tacking a year onto Microsoft's first-stated release goal for any given product. And as its next-generation products slip further and further into the future, there are increasingly important repercussions, especially for enterprises that adopted Microsoft's Software Assurance (SA) licensing plans. This week, I present more information about Windows Server 2003 R2, the Windows Server release that will predate Longhorn, and examine how a recent delay in the shipment of Microsoft SQL Server Yukon and Visual Studio Whidbey puts Longhorn's release date in doubt--regardless of what Microsoft says--while putting SA customers up in arms.

More Details about Windows 2003 R2
Last week, I mentioned that Microsoft will ship an interim Windows Server version, currently dubbed R2, sometime between now and Longhorn. This week, I have a few more details about this product, courtesy of a source on the Windows Server team. If all goes according to schedule, R2 will ship in summer 2005 and will combine all the bug fixes and new features from Windows 2003 Service Pack 1 (SP1), including the excellent roles-based Security Configuration Wizard, with many of the out-of-band (OOB) or feature pack updates that the company has released since April. These updates include a new Windows TrustBridge-enabled version of Microsoft SharePoint Portal Server that will let enterprises share information with partners and customers, an integrated update to Windows Rights Management Services (RMS), and the Whidbey version of the Microsoft .NET Common Language Runtime (CLR) execution environment. R2 will also include new, unique features, including branch-office management support. The company hasn't yet determined pricing, but Microsoft assured me that it won't force customers to pay new Client Access License (CAL) fees if they've already licensed Windows 2003. The product's final name and delivery vehicle are yet to be determined, meaning that Microsoft isn't sure how it will handle Windows 2003 upgrades. My guess is the upgrade will be free to existing Windows 2003 customers.

Yukon Wave Recedes to 2005
Last week, Microsoft dropped a bit of a bombshell when it began informing press, analysts, and customers that it would be delaying Yukon and Whidbey until the first half of 2005. Originally due in late 2003, these products constitute the so-called "Yukon wave" of products, which will arrive before the Longhorn wave of products, the latter of which will include new Windows client and server versions, a new Microsoft Office suite, a new Visual Studio (VS) release (code-named Orcas), a new MSN update, and other products. Microsoft delaying a product is nothing new, but this announcement was unexpected and is causing several concerns--chief among them are the effects the delay will have on SA customers and whether the delay will affect Longhorn's ever-lengthening release schedule.

On the licensing front, Microsoft has an emergency situation with which to deal. Customers who purchased expensive SA maintenance licenses were assured a year ago that their contracts would include a new SQL Server version. But now that the release has slipped yet again, Yukon is no longer covered under many existing SA agreements. That leaves customers with two lousy choices: They can simply resubscribe to SA at cost, or they can complain and hope Microsoft provides them with Yukon even after their licensing terms expire. For many customers, SA probably would have made more sense in the release mania of the late 1990s, but since then, Microsoft's product development cycle has lengthened considerably. Perhaps it's time for the SA program to more closely match this new schedule. Otherwise, companies will have no choice but to incur more fees while they evaluate new products and ensure they're ready for prime time.

Furthermore, critics are starting to describe the constant delays as a "credibility issue." What if Microsoft never meets whatever bars it sets for itself and continues to delay Yukon as it adds more and more features? At some point, customers might reasonably ask Microsoft whether the features the company is trying to roll out in that release will benefit them and, if not, ask the company to remove features and get Yukon back on track. It's a complicated bit of supposition, but what happens if Microsoft is only delaying Yukon because its platform-based technologies--the guts of the product that will eventually form the basis for the WinFS storage engine in Longhorn--aren't ready? Shouldn't that rankle its traditional database customers, who might be able to take advantage of Yukon's other features today? I think it should.

The delays also hit hard at the central Microsoft tenet of integration. Yukon integrates with and relies on Whidbey in the same ways that Whidbey integrates with and relies on Yukon. So it's likely neither product will ship a long time before the other. What happens when a product wave--like that of Longhorn--includes far more products, however? If Microsoft can't even keep the Yukon wave on track, how will the company handle the complexity of the Longhorn wave and its many intertwined products?

Microsoft says the Yukon delays won't affect the Longhorn schedule, but I don't believe it. Even a relatively small effort, such as the development of Windows XP Service Pack 2 (SP2), set back Longhorn for several months, and I'm told the Windows team hasn't built a single Longhorn build since late 2003. Given the companywide focus on these product waves and the fact that Microsoft doesn't want Longhorn to follow too closely behind Yukon, you can rest assured that we'll be lucky to see Longhorn happen in 2006.

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