Call them early adopters. This past December, reports began circulating that consumers in Malaysia were queuing up to purchase pirated copies of Microsoft's next-generation operating system. This despite the fact that the new OS, code-named Longhorn, is not expected to go on sale until at least 2006.
While such over-the-top exuberance for new software is not unusual in Asia, it's uncertain whether business managers in the United States will exhibit a similar enthusiasm for the next Windows OS. Granted, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates claims Longhorn will be the company's most important software launch of the decade, but it's not entirely certain which decade he's referring to. Microsoft has already pushed back the launch of the new OS several times, and some analysts believe the product won't actually ship until late 2007.
Additional delays could be bad news for corporations currently contemplating an upgrade of their network platforms—particularly those looking to upgrade from Windows 2000. Typically, Microsoft offers mainstream support for its operating systems for five years, tacking on two years of extended support past that. CFOs and CIOs looking to hang on with Windows 2000 until Longhorn arrives could find themselves in a lurch if the new system doesn't ship until 2008.
Moreover, some industry watchers wonder if Longhorn is worth waiting for. Michael Silver, an operating systems analyst at Gartner, a technology-research company based in Stamford, Conn., says Microsoft will have to work hard to convince corporate customers to make a fast changeover to the new OS. "We certainly expect that Longhorn will be a relatively difficult migration," he says. "And difficult equals costly."
Not surprisingly, Microsoft executives have sounded off about the virtues of Longhorn, which they claim marks a breakthrough in convenience, security, and reliability. The OS will feature a much-trumpeted file-management system (Windows Future Storage, or WinFS), designed to make it easier to locate stored files, E-mails, and Web pages. The software will also include an enhanced security environment that allows applications and services to protect users from privacy invasions, hacking, and spam. Other pluses include a slicker user interface, improved multimedia support, and better error reporting.
But Michael Cherry, operating systems lead analyst for Directions on Microsoft, a research firm located in Kirkland, Wash., isn't sold on Longhorn yet. He claims Microsoft has failed to tell corporate customers just what benefits they will receive by upgrading to the OS. Says Cherry: "What we are not seeing from Microsoft is any measurement of how Longhorn helps address user productivity—real measurable productivity."
Another complication: experts say some existing applications may run poorly on the Longhorn platform. That, in turn, could overshadow the business-oriented features of the new OS. "Even if [the applications] work on Longhorn, you also need to make sure that the vendor is going to support you on it," observes Silver.
Then again, it's not likely that huge numbers of software vendors will produce new programs that won't work with Longhorn. Indeed, it appears inevitable that many vendors—and customers—will have little choice but to eventually embrace Microsoft's next OS. The industry giant has already pulled the support plug on Windows 95, and only recently announced it is extending paid phone support for Windows 98. (According to AssetMetrix Research Labs, more than 80 percent of U.S. companies still have some machines running those operating systems.) "Microsoft will terminate support for [Windows] XP," forecasts Chad Robinson, a senior research analyst for Westport, Conn.-based consulting and research firm Robert Frances Group. "And this is likely to come sooner than many customers would prefer."
In the meantime, Microsoft customers can get a sneak preview of Longhorn with Microsoft's release of XP Service Pack 2 (SP2). The Service Pack, an XP update that includes security enhancements, should be released this summer. In truth, SP2 may give many business users all the new Windows features they immediately need, allowing them to put off the switch to Longhorn. Says Silver: "We're not expecting mainstream deployment to Longhorn to really start in large numbers until 18 months after it's shipped." Whenever that is.