I’m puzzled by Microsoft’s apparent confusion over the release date for Longhorn. Many stories over the last two weeks have discussed potential repercussions and conspiracy theories. The leading one being that they want to wait until the anti-trust consent order runs out so they can keep the document apis secret. I don’t buy that at all.Besides being inconsistent with the way MS operates, it would be bad business. And whatever you want to say about the guys and gals in Redmond, stupid they are not. Someone also floated the theory last week that the delay was due to Intel’s so far inability to produce a DX9 compatible chipset. But that seems even more far-fetched to me. Since when did MS delay a critical release for Intel? By the time Longhorn hits the market, DX9 parts will be everywhere. Intel’s ability to play ball is Intel’s problem.
Having a ship date is critical, making the ship date is not. Delays are to be expected. Even multi-year delays. The engineering task of new functionality + some security finally + backward compatibility + interoperability with existing software = a monstrous task. That’s without a completely new kind of file system and rendering architecture. So being 2 or 3 years late is to be expected. But the rhetoric has been puzzling. They had a date in 2004, then pushed it back to 2005, then almost immediately Gates himself said they didn’t know when it would ship. And that’s where we stand now. This uncertainty, combined with the apparently imminent developer release of the software and a scheduled beta test starting early next year don’t add up.
With many 3 year License 6 plans ticking away, a lot of customers will expect an upgrade long before Longhorn can be ready . Now, MS explicitly said that Software Assurance did not automatically guarantee upgrades. But a lot of customers still believed that’s what they were buying. And customers are less cowed than they used to be. So the next renewal cycle on Licensing 6 is likely to be fractious. This will be a big challenge for Ballmer. The sales people are not going to be happy pitching license renewals to customers that feel they have paid for an undelivered upgrade. And even then, a lot of the customers will have just gotten around to installing XP enterprise wide anyway. Expect a lot of pushing and shoving in the meeting rooms of Redmond. I’ve seen sales people in this kind of position, and they like to share their pain.
The problem with an interim (XP and a half?) is Windows ME. I don’t know how they view this internally at MS, but ME was a disaster. It did nothing to increase MS sales because most are via OEM installs and ME was never a serious contender at retail. Unlike 95 which was a big retail product. But it did introduce a host of bugs and all kinds of upgrade headaches. It also decisively removed early and automatic updating from the selection set of IT options at many enterprises. Many of these are the people still running 98 or 98SE. The very people MS needs to upgrade to XP. And the sooner the better, because every day that passes, the upgrade path from 98 to Linux looks more attractive. So the business need for an interim OS release is immense. But the technological rationale is thin, and the potential pitfalls serious. Like it or not, XP has been a tremendous success from a technology point of view. Apart, that is, from the security time-bombs going off weekly, but that’s another issue.
Soon, someone at MS is going to have to name a ship date, or announce a roadmap that includes an interim release. What MS plans to ship and when is a pretty important issue when 90% of the world is running Windows. Perhaps the current vagueness signals an internal debate. Remember the part about sales people sharing their pain. In any case, Ballmer is going to have to take a public stand at some point. I can understand why he would want to wait as long as possible before doing so. This sales/tech Ballmer/Gates showdown scenario is probably over-simplified, but that doesn’t make it inaccurate.
About the Author:
“John O’Sullivan does Sales and Marketing for HotSprings Inc, a Toronto based maker of internet software and open source development tools.”