Over the last two weeks, a torrent of news has been flowing out of Microsoft about the software that it will ship over the next several years. Unfortunately for the IT vendor, much of that news has been about delays in long-awaited products. Those delays will have a significant impact on the choices that Microsoft and its customers make in the coming months.
Microsoft launched the latest wave of news on March 10, when it admitted that it has pushed out ship dates for the next releases of SQL Server and Visual Studio.NET--code named Yukon and Whidbey, respectively--by as much as six months. The company said it is doing so to ensure that both products meet the quality requirements of customers. Since both products were originally slated to ship in the fourth quarter of this year, the delay will likely move their availability dates to the second quarter of 2005.
There are good reasons why Microsoft is delaying both products by the same amount of time. To put it simply, the two products rely on each other for several key capabilities. Among its features, Yukon will allow customers to create database objects that contain managed code written in languages such as Visual Basic (VB) and Visual C++. Applications will be able to invoke these database objects as stored procedures or database triggers. However, the .NET runtime environment that makes such invocation possible is part of Whidbey. As a consequence, Microsoft cannot easily ship one product without the other.
Under Microsoft's revised shipment schedule, the company should release a second beta version of Yukon--now renamed SQL Server 2005--in a few months. About the same time, developers will receive the first beta release of Whidbey, which is now known as Visual Studio 2005. Microsoft plans to ship a third beta release of SQL Server 2005 and a second beta release of Visual Studio 2005 near the end of this year.
Long Waits for Longhorn
Because it is delaying SQL Server 2005 and Visual Studio 2005 for further testing, Microsoft also has to revise release schedules for the Longhorn generation of products that it planned to ship in 2005 and 2006. This includes Longhorn versions of Windows for both clients and servers as well as the "Orcas" release of Visual Studio. Sources inside Microsoft are privately saying that the Windows Longhorn client will probably not ship until the second half of 2006, a full year beyond the originally planned delivery date. The Longhorn release of Windows Server will probably hit store shelves in 2007, while Orcas could ship in late 2006 or early 2007.
Now that the wait for Longhorn has become even longer, it has become increasingly likely that Microsoft will offer interim releases of both its Windows client and server operating systems. According to Microsoft sources, the company is considering a second release of Windows Server 2003. If shipped, the release would include the new capabilities that the company has added to the operating system since its release, including SharePoint Services and the Group Policy Management Console. Microsoft could also include technologies that are still in beta testing, including the Virtual Server engine for creating logical partitions akin to those found on IBM's iSeries. However, an interim release would not contain core Longhorn technologies such as the new Windows file system or the Avalon user interface.
In addition, Microsoft is considering a second release of the Windows XP client that company insiders are informally calling "Windows XP Reloaded." This hypothetical offering should not be confused with Windows XP Service Pack 2, a bundle of security fixes that Microsoft will release in a few months. While any "Reloaded" release would include Service Pack 2, it would also include enhancements such as the next release of Windows Media Player. For the moment, however, Windows XP Reloaded is only a topic for discussion at Microsoft and not a development project.
There is reason to believe that most iSeries customers will accept Microsoft's product delays with little in the way of complaints. Since the majority of these customers are inherently conservative about IT upgrades, they would prefer that Microsoft take the time to turn out a quality product. However, the product delays will leave a significant minority in the unenviable position of having their Software Assurance contracts expire before the new products ship. Those contracts entitle the holders to any product upgrades that ship during the life of the contract, but that entitlement disappears on the expiration date. Many customers who hold these contracts purchased them with the belief that those upgrades would ship before their contracts expired. In many cases, Microsoft's partners and sales representatives did little to discourage that belief.
This leaves Microsoft in a difficult position. If it insists that customers renew their Software Assurance contracts to get product upgrades, it could alienate them and lose many to alternatives such as Linux. On the other hand, if the software giant gives away upgrades to customers with expired contracts, it could fuel a perception that companies can win concessions by "holding out" on contract renewals. Clearly, Microsoft loses in either scenario.
Given the dilemma it faces, it is quite likely that Microsoft will let its sales teams come up with creative options to iron out contract problems in their accounts. If you are among the companies that face a Software Assurance expiration before product upgrades ship, I encourage you to contact your Microsoft field office immediately. Chances are good that you can negotiate an agreement that addresses your concerns.