What history tells us

True or false: Microsoft plans to ship Windows 2000 (Win2K) sometime in the fourth quarter. (And for the smart alecks out there, that's fourth quarter 1999.) The July 2 release of Win2K Release Candidate 1 (RC1) seems to support that time frame: The period between the first release candidate (RC) and release to manufacturing (RTM) usually lasts no longer than 3 months. After RTM, you typically have to wait 4 to 6 weeks while Microsoft presses the CD-ROMs, prints the boxes, and trucks the packages to dealer warehouses and shelves. Therefore, a general release date between October and December seems reasonable.

Origins in Cairo
Win2K has been in the works since the early 1990s. The first time I heard mention of what are now Active Directory (AD), Dfs, object link tracking on NTFS, and Windows NT-based Plug and Play (PnP) support was at the April 1992 Win32 Developer's Conference in San Francisco. Back then, Bill Gates laid out the plans for a project he called Cairo. Seven years later, you can understand why Microsoft wants to just ship the silly thing and ship it now. But is Win2K ready? The answer to that question depends on your expectations of the product.

Half of the answer is simple: Win2K's replacement of NT Workstation—Win2K Professional (Win2K Pro)—is ready to ship, almost unequivocally. I'm always irritated when I compare the simplicity of adding new hardware to Windows 9x with the difficulty of installing new hardware on NT. In sum, Win2K Pro combines Win9x's excellent hardware support and NT 4.0's superb software support. Like NT Workstation 4.0, Win2K Pro is pretty difficult to crash.

Win2K Server, however, presents a somewhat different story. Microsoft designed Win2K Server as the enterprise server. And although enterprise is one of those marketing terms that means whatever its user wants it to mean, certainly the word suggests reliability and robustness. I expected Win2K to replace not only Novell NetWare and Banyan VINES but also UNIX. I looked forward to an OS that was rugged enough to host the client-server applications and let you turn off the mainframe once and for all. But, alas, this isn't an OS that you'd use to run the Dow-Jones, a space station, or mom's iron lung.

Microsoft seems to have replaced the goal of industrial-strength reliability with a weaker goal: Let's give Win2K a bunch of new features (e.g., AD, PnP, the Change and Configuration Management— CCM—stuff) and make it at least as reliable as NT 4.0—and then let's ship it. By that lesser measure, Win2K Server is certainly ready to ship. If you're using NT Server 4.0, you'll like Win2K Server, provided you've got the hardware to support the new OS's greater demands.

We Can Still Hope
I'm saddened that Microsoft has lowered the bar for Win2K Server. I'm heartened, however, by the story of NT 3.1 and NT 3.5: When NT 3.1 shipped, the OS was fairly good for a first try. A year later, NT 3.5 shipped and we found that Microsoft hadn't spent the year simply adding a bunch of glitzy features; rather, the company spent its time making NT 3.5 smaller, faster, and more reliable than NT 3.1.

Perhaps now that the paroxysm of feature-adding is over, the folks at Redmond can settle down to some good old-fashioned bug hunting. When is that first Win2K service pack due, anyway?