Microsoft Works Out Longhorn Schedule for First Half of 2006

Months of customer complaints have finally had an effect on Microsoft. This week, the company acknowledged that it will deliver Longhorn, the next major Windows release, on a fixed schedule, ending years of vague delivery dates and glacial development. The slow move to a concrete timetable started last month when Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates--who in June 2000 stepped down as CEO specifically to have more of a hands-on role with Longhorn--said that conjectures about a 2006 release for the product were "valid." This week, however, internal company documentation corroborated by Microsoft representatives pins the Longhorn release date to "the first half of 2006." And the oft-delayed beta 1 release (originally due in late summer 2004) will ship in mid-February 2005, according to the documentation I've seen.
The Longhorn schedule has been the subject of conjecture because the time span between the release of the last major Windows version, Windows XP, and the expected release date of Longhorn has increased dramatically. Some of this conjecture is just Windows-enthusiast nonsense. But the interest in Longhorn's schedule is understandable. More than 150 million new PCs are sold each year, most of them running XP, so the installed Windows base has grown significantly in recent years. XP hasn't sold particularly well at retail, however, despite steady free improvements to the software during the past 3 years. And, more importantly, many of Microsoft's crucial enterprise customers aren't upgrading to XP despite the fact that they have licenses to do so and would have more secure systems if they upgraded.
To rejuvenate enthusiasm for XP, Microsoft briefly considered an interim XP release (code-named Oasis) that the company would have released as part of the XP Reloaded marketing campaign scheduled for this year. Eventually, however, Microsoft decided to continue to roll out free Windows features, such as a major new Windows Media Player (WMP) update, without releasing a new Windows version. So XP Reloaded will concentrate on the WMP update, XP Service Pack 2 (SP2), and other major XP changes that are due later this year.
Microsoft also concedes that the company will remove some features from Longhorn, if necessary, to meet the new schedule. This decision is in keeping with the maturation of Longhorn from a freewheeling set of research-oriented projects to a more stable, customer-focused product. "There may be specific features that will be scaled back," Windows Lead Product Manager Greg Sullivan said. "It's a matter of scaling back by degrees. In some cases, the scenarios \[we're concentrating on\] won't be as all-encompassing." Internal Microsoft documentation suggests that the cuts won't be serious, and the company will still deliver all the major technology initiatives it's promised thus far, including the database-backed WinFS storage engine, the Avalon presentation layer, and the Indigo communications services. 
So which Longhorn features will Microsoft cut? According to a "BusinessWeek" article, the deleted features include a WinFS tool that would have aggregated content on a local network. However, the company is retaining similar features for the local system and for the Internet--features that will be more valuable for typical users. Presumably, a more network-friendly version of WinFS could ship in Longhorn Server, due 60 to 90 days after the Longhorn client ships, or in Blackcomb, the Windows release that will follow Longhorn.
Microsoft has also scaled back plans for a Longhorn-specific Microsoft Office release, and Microsoft Office 12 will run on other volume Windows versions in addition to Longhorn. "Microsoft knows that customers have different roll-out needs," a Microsoft representative told "We'll be working to ensure they can use the next version of Office with other recent versions of Windows as well."
All of this information points to a not-so-subtle shift in the way Microsoft presents Longhorn to the world. Clearly, the company's "we'll ship when it's ready" message hasn't resonated with its enterprise customers, who have demanded more tangible information about the product and a tighter schedule as they eye their expiring subscription licensing agreements. Nevertheless, Microsoft needs to finish some other releases before Longhorn can move to the proverbial front burner. After the company completes XP SP2 next month, it will concentrate on Windows Server 2003 SP1 and Windows 2000 SP5, two major security-related enterprise updates that will include some of the Springboard security features from XP SP2. That both updates are due by late 2004 suggests that the mid-February beta 1 date for Longhorn isn't entirely coincidental or artificially pushed back. Even an industry giant like Microsoft has difficulty focusing on so many major products at one time.

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