As the rumor mill churns into full gear regarding the next Windows release (code-named Longhorn), several analysts are predicting that Microsoft will again miss a deadline, requiring an interim Windows release between now and Longhorn's estimated 2005 delivery date. However, I've been arguing since January that Microsoft will need to deliver at least one interim release—if only because consumers expect a new Windows version each holiday season. For 2002, that release is a new Windows XP version that includes XP Service Pack 1 (SP1) baked in. But for 2003 and 2004 ... well, time will tell.

Regardless of Longhorn's timing and the availability of any interim Windows releases, Microsoft has other important software products and servers coming in the months ahead. This week, I look at some of these products and discuss how they might benefit you and your corporation.

XP Tablet PC Edition - November 2002
Many people misunderstood my June 2002 Tablet PC review: I'm actually very impressed with both the hardware and Microsoft's XP Tablet PC Edition software. However, I think the Tablet PC's data conversion concerns will vex many customers, especially if users keep their data in Microsoft Ink format, as the company expects. Tablet PC is a market waiting to explode, and if Microsoft is right about the so-called "corridor warrior" set, we'll see a new class of laptop computers—excuse me, Tablet PCs—head to the top of the sales chart.

The first generation of Tablet PCs are best-suited to lawyers, doctors, factor workers, or anyone who needs to move between casual writing-style environments and typical, laptop-style PC use. And the tablet-style Tablet PCs, the ones that aren't convertible laptops, are excellent solutions for workers who occasionally work outside the office; users can dock the PC at work and use it like a regular PC or access the device with a stylus and onscreen keyboard elsewhere.

Win.NET Server 2003 - Late 2002/Early 2003
I've written about Windows .NET Server (Win.NET Server) 2003 a lot in UPDATE, and I'll continue to do so in the future, so let's move along to the next product.

SMS 2003 - First Half of 2003
The next version of Systems Management Server (SMS), SMS 2003, will focus on three key areas: support for mobile devices (primarily Pocket PCs), optional Active Directory (AD) integration, and improvements to the product's metering and reporting functionality. Microsoft just shipped SMS 2003 Beta 1, which shows off the product's simplified administration tools for software distribution, asset management, and remote troubleshooting.

I'm excited to see Microsoft tackling Change and Configuration Management (CCM), which I consider to be a crucial management task. But the company's management tools are in flux and, post-SMS 2003, it's unclear how Microsoft will change SMS, Microsoft Operations Manager (MOM), and Application Center 2000. A Microsoft representative told me this summer that the company would integrate the products in some fashion but was still unsure what the results would look like. Perhaps the company will announce more concrete plans at next week's Microsoft Enterprise Conference (MEC) 2002 in Anaheim, California.

Office 11 - Mid-2003
After three lackluster upgrades, Microsoft is serious about Microsoft Office again, and we'll see the first beta release of the next version, Office 11, next week. Office 11 will feature yet another new Office-specific user interface and native support for XML data, which will enable "smart" documents that can update themselves as needed over a network or the Internet. And if that functionality sounds scary, it gets even worse: Office 11 documents can run code over the Internet. That feature will let documents, when opened, check for certain applications on your local system. If the applications aren't available, the document can launch an installer.

Although this feature doesn't sound promising from a security standpoint, especially for those of us still burning from having to fix numerous Microsoft Outlook-borne viruses, we'll need to wait a while for the details. Hopefully, next week's Office 11 Beta 1 release will include some information about the product's XML capabilities and security. But Office 11 will likely feature some major improvements. Stay tuned.

Exchange 2003 Server (Titanium) - Mid 2003
Originally, the Exchange Server release after Exchange 2000 Server was to include the Microsoft SQL-based data store that's part of SQL Server's upcoming Yukon release (see next section). But shifting schedules have changed the Exchange picture, and now we're looking at an interim release, Exchange 2003 Server, in mid-2003. Exchange 2003 will build on the AD changes in Win.NET Server and include as-yet-unnamed collaboration technologies from Office 11. I do know that Exchange 2003 will include an improved Outlook Web Access (OWA) client, Exchange System Manager (ESM) improvements, and support for up to 8-node clustering. The first beta release is due late in 2002.

I suspect Exchange 2003 will see its biggest deployments in shops committed to the Win.NET Server generation of products (Exchange 2000 won't install on Win.NET Server). As with Office 11, we'll need to wait until the first beta release to see whether the new features are worth the upgrade.

SQL Server 2003 (Yukon) - Late 2003
In late 2003, Microsoft will unleash the Yukon version of SQL Server, which the company will market as SQL Server 2003. This release will feature "deep XML, SOAP, and .NET CLR (Common Language Runtime) integration," according to Microsoft, and true language independence for stored procedures. SQL Server 2003 will also include a special version of the Visual Studio .NET development environment so that developers need to learn only one environment, as well as various self-healing and self-management technologies.

The biggest news about SQL Server 2003 is that this release marks the next generation of Microsoft enterprise products: Its underlying data storage technology will form the basis of the Longhorn file system and AD version, the next Exchange Server version (post-Titanium), and every other Microsoft product that requires storage of some sort. This release is important for many reasons and is certainly a product to watch.

Looking forward, I'm interested in any stories about XP SP1 rollouts. If you've deployed XP SP1, please let me know how it went.