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As mentioned in an earlier post on OSNews today, the Register has an article about remarks Bill Gates gave yesterday in Holland. He aid some interesting things worth examining. First is that 2006 could be optimistic for Longhorn. Second that Gates has not yet understood the significance of the Athlon 64. And third that Gates imself may be out of the loop on some important MS issues.
Concerning the ship date for Longhorn, Gates said, "Longhorn could be 2005 or 2006... This release is going to be driven by technology, not by a release date. Which probably means it is going to be late." Mary Jo Foley quoted Sanjay Parthasarathy, (corporate VP, platform strategy and partner group) last Friday as saying "Three years out is the Longhorn wave." So the target date is clear as mud. Is it 2005 (which everyone expects to slip into 2006)? Or is it 2006 (which everyone will expect to slip out into 2007)? If its really going to ship for end 2007, there are a few problems. As discussed in an earlier article, the sales people will go crazy without an OS upgrade of some sort next year. They sold a lot of Software Assurance licenses on the expectation that there would be a new OS before the 3 year term was up. OK, MS never promised such a thing, but a lot of customers rationalized that's what they were buying. Bad things happen. The sales people won't like going in to sell the next 3 year round of Software Assurance if there's been no upgrade. But they are all big boys and girls. They don't have to like it as long as they meet their numbers. But selling the next 3 year Software Assurance license with no new OS in the cards is going to be a very tough job. Very tough. And its going to be tougher unless MS details new upcoming versions of Office or something equally valuable to the clients. The mantra has been "Its in Longhorn" for quite a while now. That seems to mitigate against major upgrades beyond the current Office 11.
All of this assumes MS sticks to its guns and does not release an interim Windows to fill the gap. There is talk floating around that the WinXP Service Pack 2 due in the spring could be tarted up to fulfill such a role. I don't think so. Nobody that bought Software Assurance with the expectation of a Windows iteration will be satisfied with that. But its hard to see what else could be done. The timeline of previous Windows releases looks like this
|Windows NT 3.1||1993|
|Windows NT 3.5||1994|
|Windows NT 3.5.1||1995|
|Windows NT 4.0||1996|
|Windows NT Server||1997|
|Windows XP Tablet||2002|
|Windows XP Media Center||2002|
|Windows 2003 Server||2003|
The proposition that MS can go three plus years without an iteration to Windows is inconsistent with their past history. The only time its happened before was between 2.0 and 3.0. And I'm not going to take a 64 bit version of XP as a major upgrade.
The 64 bit Question
The second interesting thing from the remarks was the part about 64 bit desktop computing. Its clear that Intel missed the boat, and that they are scrambling to put something, anything on the market to counter AMD. They seem to have won the lottery with the Athlon 64. It wasn't at all clear until a few weeks ago that a 64 bit chip with 32 bit capabilities in the same price range as current chips would be the magic formula.But it is. And Intel knows it now. They are responding with the P4E. If they had decided to create a strategy to piss off the greatest amount of people, they couldn't have done better than the P4E. Its too expensive for enthusiasts and OEMs. But being a cut-down Xeon, it will be cheap enough to anger customers that bought the full-price version. And its not 64 bit. 64 bit "extensions" are about as compelling as 3dFX's 24bit colour when ATI and NVidia were shipping 32 bit chips.
Intel's problems are obviously not Microsoft's problems. But a swift uptake of 64 bit desktop systems will be problematic unless MS moves quickly. There is no shipping 64 bit XP for the Athlon. But there are multiple shipping Linux distros with full support. Normally, we could expect MS to move fast enough to cut off the competitive opportunity for the Linux distros. However, the chief software architect has announced "It (64 bit) appears more magical than it really is." And seemed to emphasize the importance of security and patching over a 64 bit OS. Could this be a mistake as significant as the failure to note the importance of the Internet in 1993 and 1994? We'll see, but betas of a 64 bit XP are all they've promised for the short-term. Its going to be hard to match the pace of OS-X and Linux development if MS is tied to an ever receding Longhorn and has no major plans for a 64 bit desktop.
Out and About
Finally, there are some tantalizing hints that Gates is not entirely in the loop. He said that he was unaware of plans to ally with Phoenix for BIOS level security measures saying, "The BIOS will always be separated from the operating system. Actually, it's gotten out of date. If you run Windows XP, it calls very little of the BIOS." Discussing recent security issues, he said, "None of the security problems recently affected people who had their software up to date." And he added that MS would solve the patch problem by applying patches automatically. AFAIK, Gates seems to be out of touch with actual events in each case. "Trusted Computing" of the kind promised with Palladium will require some serious hardware interaction. The BIOS is the easiest place to do this. Phoenix is a crucial partner in enabling user compliance. Gates did not seem to understand this. Also, I believe that some of the recent security "issues" involved known vulnerabilities for which MS had not issued patches. And the idea Ballmer is going to OK automatically patching user machines seems far fetched to me. The liability issues could be staggering. If MS is going to assume responsibility for securing my machine, the they'll have to pay if it gets hacked. Let's not read too much into this. Gates is a very smart man and he's worked with Ballmer for a long time. But these episodes are orth noting.
In all, a surprisingly revealing session. I've frequently predicted Microsoft's doom, and usually been right about the cause, but wrong about the effect. They are a smart bunch of people. But we are n the edge of big shakeups in the existing order. Rather than articulating Microsoft's role in the new, they are reacting to events. Gates sounded almost plaintive when he said "We invented personal computing. It is the best tool of empowerment there has ever been. If there is anything that clouds that picture, we need to fix it." If you can Mr. Gates. If you can.