How to save NT 5.0

Windows NT 4.9? You're probably thinking, "Dang! I ignore the industry gossip for a week, and I miss the announcement of a whole new version of NT!" Relax. You haven't missed anything. NT 4.9 is just my proposed salvation for NT 5.0.

Bad Press
Microsoft has been talking about releasing NT 5.0 for years, and the release date keeps moving forward. Now the NT 5.0 release is scheduled for the second half of 1998, and even that time frame is optimistic. I'm writing this article in late February 1998, and I've seen only a beta 1 release that doesn't implement most of NT 5.0's new features. My guess is that we won't see NT 5.0 until 1999.

Let me be clear that I'm not criticizing Microsoft about when NT 5.0 ships. Some days, I feel like one of a small group of computer journalists who aren't beating on Microsoft to ship NT 5.0 soon, and that worries me.

A computer weekly recently ran a cover story about how users feel about the NT 5.0 delay. The article featured a seemingly unending stream of user complaints that the NT 5.0 delay is unacceptable and, more frightening, that many users have decided to forgo NT altogether and buy NetWare instead.

Imagine how a Microsoft shareholder would react to that: "Boy, we'd better get that puppy out today, or we'll be out of business!" You'd never know that the publication interviewed me for the article and I argued that quality, not timing, is essential to NT 5.0's success. The article appeared in the news rather than the editorial section of the publication, but only anti-Microsoft quotes made the article's cut. Articles like this send Microsoft the message "Don't get it done right, get it done on time."

With journalists and shareholders baying at Microsoft's heels, I'm guessing Microsoft executives are feeling pressure to get NT 5.0 out soon, whether it's complete or not. NT 5.0 will be an enterprise operating system (OS), a tool people will use to build powerful networks of all sizes. If it lives up to its promises, NT 5.0 could be the last significant change to a major network operating system (NOS) for quite some time. But an unfinished release would be a disaster.

The Next NT?
How can Microsoft make everyone happy? I have a modest proposal, which I offer with tongue only slightly in cheek. I think the folks in Redmond should release NT 4.9, a version containing only components that are already 99 percent finished.

As I imagine NT 4.9, Microsoft engineers would have to add a few components to NT 4.0 and revise the setup routine to incorporate NT 4.9's new features. They probably already have enough working NT 5.0 components to make a new version worthwhile. Let's see what NT 4.9 could contain.

For starters, let's talk about BackOffice Small Business Server. SBS has some great new features, but they're hardwired for a one-machine, one-domain environment. SBS's new features include a complete fax server, something we've not seen from Microsoft for NT. I've never found an NT-based fax server that was worth the time it took to set up, so a built-in fax server would be nice. Now SBS lets you share modems in NT, and it includes a few more wizards that simplify setup. A built-in fax server, modem sharing functionality, and an easier setup process would be three good reasons to upgrade to NT 4.9.

For people who manage large groups of file servers and try to create fault-tolerant high-availability networks, Microsoft could include the Distributed File System (Dfs) in NT 4.9. Dfs looks nearly complete to me; the non-Active Directory (AD) part of Dfs has been in beta for almost a year and a half. You'll need AD (which Microsoft hasn't completed) to take advantage of Dfs's full power, but Dfs is useful without AD. Some corporations already rely on Dfs services. Why not take Dfs out of the support closet and make it an official part of an NT version that ships this year?

FAT32 is an irritant for many people who buy new PCs. Most new PCs come with Windows 95 OSR2 or perhaps Win98. Most have at least a 4GB hard disk that the manufacturer has formatted as one FAT32 disk. But if you try to install NT on one of these computers so you can dual-boot NT and Windows 9x, your computer will stop cold. NT 4.0 can't understand FAT32. To make Windows 9x and NT get along on such a computer, you have to take everything off the computer's hard disk, repartition, reformat, and reinstall. Ugh. Microsoft already has the FAT32 code working on NT. Microsoft could just ship it on NT 4.9: Many new computer owners would be happier, and Microsoft might even sell a few extra copies of NT by lowering the barriers between NT and other Windows products.

The new Windows Scripting Host (WSH) lets you build batch files that interact with the GUI and system objects. Like most of NT 5.0's user interface components, WSH is part of Internet Explorer (IE) 4.0, which Microsoft has already beaten into shape for Win98. I'm guessing that Microsoft has WSH working for NT already.

IE 4.0 would be another indispensable component of NT 4.9. I'm not a big fan of Active Desktop, but maybe I'd get used to Active Desktop if it ran on both NT and the other Windows desktops I work with.

And More...
No new version of NT is complete without added reliability. NT 4.9 could include all of NT 4.0's service packs and security hotfixes. A version of NT that came with the service packs installed would be a convenience, because you must have Service Pack 3 (SP3) in place before you can install Routing and Remote Access Service (RRAS), Internet Information Server (IIS) 4.0, or Microsoft Management Console (MMC). Microsoft could include RRAS, IIS, and MMC in NT 4.9, saving people from downloading new modules or keeping track of update CD-ROMs.

One of the goofy aspects of the NT 4.0 implementation of the Win95 GUI is the way Microsoft laid out the Tools tab in the Properties box for drives in Windows Explorer. Like Win95, NT comes with backup and disk diagnostic tools. Unlike Win95, NT does not come with a disk defragmentation tool, although the Tools tab includes a Defragmentation area with the notice "No defragmentation tool is currently installed." Executive Software has a good basic NTFS defragmentation tool that Microsoft will include in NT 5.0, a tool that works and would fit nicely into NT 4.9.

I'm guessing that Microsoft has been working on Plug and Play (PnP) functionality for NT systems for a long time (rumors suggested that PnP for NT was almost ready when NT 4.0 shipped). PnP would be a killer reason to buy the upgrade. In addition, I've heard that the two-level hierarchical storage manager that will ship with NT 5.0 already works. If these components work today, let us have them!

An Even Better 4.01
Microsoft shareholders might respond to my proposal with, "Well, Mark, NT 4.9 sounds good, but with all of its upgrades, why will people buy NT 5.0?" Don't worry. NT 5.0 will have plenty of great features.

Take it from me: Zero Administration for Windows (ZAW) is a gotta-have-it feature. No one outside of Help desks and training departments will know what ZAW is, but the people who can use ZAW won't rest until they have it. And I hear AD, Kerberos, and an NTFS with user quotas are somewhat popular ideas.

I think Microsoft has plenty to ship right now. I say release NT 4.9 today and buy some time to do a stellar job on AD, ZAW, and the rest of NT 5.0.