Will customers jump ship?

This month's "Adventures with Beta 2," page 61, describes my first experience with Windows NT 5.0 beta 2. I tried to install the operating system (OS) on four fairly recent machines, and beta 2 installed without a hitch on only one of the four. This score is pretty bad, and I'm afraid it's a harbinger of NT 5.0's future.

I'm not going to argue that NT 5.0 ought to support SQL Server 7.0 on a 486 processor with 16MB of RAM. If users want the functionality of programs such as Active Directory (AD), Zero Administration for Windows (ZAW), and Plug and Play (PnP), they must expect NT 5.0's developers to raise NT hardware requirements. But beta 2 refused to run on my Quantex 166MHz Pentium processor system, which has 96MB of RAM; beta 2 Setup locked up after a couple text screens. This failure is unacceptable, particularly when you consider that the 166MHz Pentium chip was barely out when the NT 5.0 project began.

When I tried to install beta 2 on a Digital HiNote Ultra 2000, NT 5.0 beta 2 couldn't use the system's built-in modem and network combo card. This incompatibility is incomprehensible to me. The Ultra 2000 is less than 1 year old--hardly legacy hardware. Microsoft and Digital are supposed to have an alliance to prevent such problems. Most troublesome, Microsoft developers have said on several occasions that because NT 4.0's inability to use most NT 3.51 drivers angered many customers, NT 5.0 will work with all NT 4.0 drivers except for a few old video boards.

Is Microsoft's message to prospective NT 5.0 users, "Instead of upgrading your existing systems, throw out all your servers and workstations and buy new hardware to run NT 5.0"? My Microsoft contacts stress that the company won't require users to buy all new hardware for NT 5.0. But Microsoft has in the past required users to trash their old computers to run a new OS. Ten years ago, Microsoft built OS/2 1.1, one of the pickiest pieces of software I've ever used. OS/2 1.0 was fairly catholic about which hardware it ran on, but OS/2 1.1 seemed tweaked to run only on IBM and, grudgingly, Compaq hardware. I commented at the time of OS/2 1.1's release that if the price of using the OS was buying all new hardware and software, users might consider alternatives, such as running UNIX and Novell products on the back end and Macintoshes on the desktop. Many firms purchased alternative OSs. (I'm not taking credit­or blame­for their decisions; pursuing alternatives was an obvious reaction to OS/2 1.1's system requirements.) If Microsoft gives users the choice of buying new hardware for NT 5.0 or finding an alternative, history might repeat itself. UNIX, Linux, and Novell OS sales will probably increase.

You might ask whether picking on a beta is fair. Vendors often cry foul when journalists comment about beta software. They say, "The product isn't finished. Don't point out problems now, because we'll fix them before the final version ships." That point is valid, and I have refrained from criticizing betas of OS/2, Windows, and DOS.

But I noticed the result of journalists keeping mum about beta problems: If we wait to inform people of a program's failings until the vendor releases it, we've missed our opportunity to make the vendor fix problems. Within days of a product's release to manufacturing, the majority of the vendor's developers move on to other projects. And vendors aren't about to pull a product from the shelves and reinitiate the development process. After a product ships, the public has two choices: Buy the new, flawed software or cling gamely to the previous version until the vendor stops supporting the older version (at which time, you hope, the vendor has released enough service packs to make the new version palatable).

I very much hope that the final version of NT 5.0 runs on more hardware than beta 2 does, but 17 years' experience testing betas of PC OSs leads me to fear that it won't. By the time a second beta appears, much of the OS is cast in concrete.

Jim Allchin, senior vice president of Microsoft's Personal and Business Systems Group, said Microsoft won't ship NT 5.0 until Microsoft customers say the product is ready to ship. Take Allchin at his word. Tell Microsoft not to ship NT 5.0 until it runs on all modern hardware, not just cream-of-the-crop Xeon systems. And beta 2 users, if you're running into hardware problems, don't just live with it. Tell Microsoft.