Skip to comments.Will the Next Version of Windows Be Worth the Wait?
Posted on 04/10/2005 6:06:02 AM PDT by infocats
TEN years ago, Microsoft unveiled Windows 95 in a way that suggested that the product's arrival was no less momentous than when humans stood upright for the first time. The company spent about $200 million introducing the operating system. That paid for festivities on the Microsoft campus (with Jay Leno as M.C.), rights to use the Rolling Stones song "Start Me Up" in a global advertising campaign and permission to bathe the Empire State Building at night with the Windows logo. It also loaded The Times of London with Windows 95 advertising that day, making the newspaper a one-day freebie, a first in its 307 years.
What was remarkable about the Windows 95 introduction was the acquiescence of customers, who participated so willingly in the spectacle. Microsoft arranged for retail outlets to open at midnight on the day the system would first be available, a stunt that proved as irresistible as klieg lights at a Hollywood premiere. One chain counted some 50,000 people lined up at its stores across the country.
These people were chasing an operating system, of all things - plumbing that serves a necessary function, to be sure, but of no more intrinsic interest than the pipes that snake below the floorboards of a house. In 1995, however, Microsoft managed to make the mundane appear life-changing. The Seattle Times quoted one happy midnight customer, standing with his wife, who predicted that "this is going to enhance our marriage."
Windows XP, introduced in 2001, could not match Windows 95's remarkable debut. We can hope that XP's successor, which has the code name "Longhorn" and is scheduled for release next year, will appear quietly, bringing us closer to the day when users need know no more about a PC's operating system than they do of the embedded software in a cellphone.
Longhorn's gestation has already extended much longer than originally planned. Rumors of its existence surfaced in 2001, when the system was said to have been chosen as a quick "intermediate" update of XP. Time passed, and the news media were permitted a sneak preview. But completion of even this, the interim release, came no closer. Determined to get it out the door by 2006, Microsoft decided in 2004 to remove a new file system for organizing data on the hard drive, what the company had earlier promoted as the heart of the new system. If and when this feature ever appears, it is unlikely to enhance anyone's marriage.
Regretful that it had announced an important feature that it subsequently had to remove, the company decided to remain quiet about other aspects for as long as possible. Microsoft has given software developers beta versions of two new components, for graphics and Web services, but these will be available for Windows XP customers, too. The company has yet to say what exactly will be a Longhorn-only improvement.
Microsoft's reticence cannot last much longer. In two weeks, it will be host for a conference for hardware vendors, setting down the minimum specifications that must be met in order to run Longhorn. You may be eager to know whether that PC on your desk will meet the specs. If your PC does not, it's unlikely that you will replace it just to be able to run the latest version of Windows. Michael Cherry, a senior analyst at Directions on Microsoft, a consulting firm based in Kirkland, Wash., observes that many PC users now treat their computers like TV sets.
"Unless the TV doesn't turn on," he says, "they won't replace them."
Mr. Cherry expressed skepticism about the appeal of enhanced graphics for him and others who spend most of their time using a word processor, an e-mail program and a browser. "How are 3-D graphics really going to change my life?" he wondered.
Another analyst, Rob Enderle, president of the Enderle Group, greets the system with more enthusiasm, predicting that Longhorn will provide "vast improvements in security." We can cheer this happy prospect, but at the same time we must ignore the snide laughs of Macintosh users who have yet to encounter a virus. No matter how solid and secure Longhorn's code appears, Microsoft will need a lot of independent voices providing verification and reassurance.
The professional caretakers of corporate PC's seem rather leery of Microsoft's promises these days, spurning the most recent package of security improvements and bug fixes offered for Windows XP. Last week, AssetMetrix Research Labs, a research firm based in Ottawa, released the results of a survey of 251 North American companies, measuring the adoption of Windows XP. Only 7 percent of companies had actively embraced the latest improvements, Service Pack 2, released six months ago. The improvements, it turns out, introduce software-compatibility problems. These can be overcome with tinkering but not without aggravation and additional cost for fixes that should not have been necessary in the first place.
Compatibility issues will loom larger in the future. Longhorn is unlikely to co-exist peaceably with existing software that sits atop the operating system. Mr. Enderle said that gaining enhanced security necessitates making a break with the complementary software of the past, which means "compatibility is going to suffer."
Windows XP may prove to be a tenacious paterfamilias, unwilling to move aside for the next generation. Security holes notwithstanding, it is the most stable version of Windows to date. That very stability will make it difficult for the company to market Longhorn as a release more important than XP itself, a prediction that Bill Gates, Microsoft's chairman, made in 2003.
Predictions do not fare well when the computing world moves faster than the lumbering mass of Microsoft's Windows division. Linux constitutes an alternative model, employing fleet feet and frequent releases.
Mark Lucovsky, a software engineer, recently described in his blog the process of writing code for a project like Longhorn and the long wait before it reaches a customer's PC. First, a bug fix or added feature is deposited in a source code control system, where it may sit for years. Eventually it is transferred into a product release and pressed into CD's. Months pass, even in the final stage, from release to manufacturing to arrival at the customer's receiving department. Slow.
By contrast, engineers who work on improvements for a newer form of operating system, the software that powers Web sites, can roll out work almost instantaneously. Mr. Lucovsky recounts how a friend at Amazon discovered a performance issue, found a fix, tested it and had it in place, all in a day. "Not a single customer had to download a bag of bits, answer any silly questions, prove that they are not software thieves, reboot their computers, etc.," he wrote. "The software was shipped to them, and they didn't have to lift a finger."
MR. LUCOVSKY'S remarks are of interest because he knows a thing or two about developing operating systems. He was a senior architect of Windows NT, was the chief keeper of the keys for the source code and was named by Microsoft in 2000 as one among its inaugural batch of distinguished engineers. Recently, after 16 years at Microsoft, however, he said he decided that he had been wrong in thinking that Microsoft knew best "how to ship software."
It was other companies, the ones who understood the potential of the Internet and software-as-a-service, that were best able to deliver benefits to customers "efficiently and quickly," he said. He resigned from Microsoft and has joined one of those other companies: Google.
Randall Stross is a historian and author based in Silicon Valley. E-mail: email@example.com.
I think the Windows 98 frenzy was more nuts.
Heck they can't even make xp work right so they just make a new build.
I'll stick with my 98SE it works just fine.
I've migrated from Windows XP to Windows 98.
Version 2 I hope.
Windows XP: Any system which shows a dogs wagging its tail as a file search is conducted is bloated. XP with 258 KB memory and 2.1 gig processor runs no faster (and for me does no more)than 98 2nd ed. with 500 Mb processor and 128 KB memory.
We have XP on both of PCs on our home network. There has never been a problem except it took a long time to figure out file sharing. The one thing we will not do is load SP2 on out network-when I see the IT guys at work load it on to the company network, then I will put it on ours. SP2 has been the only issue that we have ever had with Microsoft. In addition, we are MSN members. I never understood all the Gates and Microsoft bashing..
Apple did this in 1984. Nothing from Gates is new... Apple markets their hardware to provide a platform for their superior OS X...
As Microsoft pushes out the arrival date for Longhorn, the promised feature list gets pruned. Eventually, M/S will be shipping an empty box and calling it 'Longhorn'.
I've gone back to W2K, and I'm thinking about going back to DOS.
Each succeeding bloated OS is worse than it's predecessor, IMHO.
I know its popular to hate Gates, Microsoft and Windows and it (Windows) does have it's share of problems. However, I've found XP to be the best, most stable Windows version to date. I like it.
Yes, there is bloat, most of which can be stipped away.
Yes, you need a beefy machine to run it well. But hardware is relatively cheap these days and I tend to keep my machine beefed up anyway.
So yeah, I hate to admit but I am excited about the release of Longhorn. I always get excited when a new OS comes out.. I'll spend days on end happily tweeking it to where I can live with it. I enjoy that for some reason.
I'm such a geek.
It will probably be the final thing that nudges me into using Linux. Seriously.
I have migrated from DOS to Window3.1 to Windows95 to Windows98 to Windows98SE to Windows NT to Windows 2000 and finally to Linux. I now use Mepis Linux and have no need to ever play the Microsoft scam again.
Nevermind what the other lyrics say about what it does for a dead man.
Though it probably improved his marriage.
I didn't take all the steps you took (through M$'s lineup of software), but I did make it to Linux, and use Mepis on my desktop.
I am sick of having to fix the wife's computer (WinXP), and were it not for my daughter's games that I want to carry forward to the next computer I buy for my wife, I would have a Linux machine there too. Instead, I will buy her an iMacG5, and kiss Norton AV and the slowness of XP (given enough time) goodbye.
When my daughter outgrows the cd games she has, she'll be on a Linux box--likely the old one my wife puts out to farm.
I have XP Pro on my office and home machines, and won't change it for quite a while. No problems, so far. Very stable and reliable. Nope, I ain't changing.
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