The next version of Win2K is compelling without being complex

As I write this column, Microsoft is about halfway through a product transition that will finally let the company's customers realize the benefits of a truly distributed computing model combining rich Windows clients with server-based services. Windows 2000 began this transition with its array of network services and simplification initiatives. And the future is Microsoft .NET. It will let software expose services over the Web and use standards-based technologies such as XML and Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP). But architectural changes of the magnitude that this transition requires don't happen overnight, and Microsoft is preparing some midtransition replacements that are worth investigating.

More than a Point Upgrade
Chief among these replacements is Whistler, the next version of Win2K Professional and Win2K Server. Just as Windows 3.1 was a point release upgrade that overshadowed the previous version, Whistler will outshine Win2K.

Whistler will include two desktop versions: a Windows Millennium Edition (Windows Me)/Windows 9x upgrade called Personal Edition, and the business-oriented Professional Edition. These desktop versions will offer several new features to make Windows simpler and more useful.

The server editions of Whistler will provide fewer new features than the desktop editions and will therefore be a less dramatic release when compared with their predecessors. However, Microsoft is adding users' most requested changes to this next release and implementing a few new features.

Due in mid- to late-2001, Whistler is the version of Windows that the enterprise has been waiting for. And thanks to the longer life cycles of corporate upgrades, Whistler is probably the version of Win2K that most companies that are now using Windows NT will upgrade to. If you've waited this long to upgrade, I've got some good news for you.

What We Know So Far
Whistler Server will include numerous improvements to Active Directory (AD), including new pruning and grafting capabilities and several simplification and UI improvements to the AD management tools. So, for example, you'll be able to modify multiple users simultaneously. You'll be able to preview changes to a Group Policy before applying them, and Global Catalog (GC) traffic will be reduced dramatically. Whistler will also offer a "headless" option that will let servers operate without a local display, keyboard, or mouse. You manage a headless server remotely over the network.

Whistler will feature better remote-administration tools and improved command-line functionality. Microsoft promised that administrators would be able to do just about anything from the Win2K command line, but Win2K fell a bit short of that mark. Whistler will correct this shortcoming. And of course, Whistler will continue the battle against DLL Hell with an improvement to Win2K's side-by-side DLL feature. Currently, few applications take advantage of side-by-side DLLs, so Whistler will simply hide this functionality and impose it on earlier applications without requiring them to explicitly work with the feature.

Looking over this list, you might note that nothing really dramatic is here, just some fine-tuning and small improvements. But that's the point: Microsoft did all the heavy architectural work in Win2K, so the company has been able to focus on customer feedback since Win2K's release. Because the heavy lifting is out of the way, Microsoft will be able to deliver Whistler in half the time of earlier versions. But even this quick turnaround was a customer request: Many corporations told Microsoft that they would rather see more frequent incremental upgrades than wait another 3-and-a-half years for the next major release. Whistler is a response to this complaint.

For companies that have already upgraded to Win2K, the upgrade picture is also good. Unlike Win2K, Whistler isn't a massive upgrade with far-reaching changes. So, you can simply upgrade many servers in place, and you won't need to re-architect networks as you had to with Win2K.

Something Worth Looking Into
Whistler is a point upgrade that could change everything. Suspecting that Win2K hasn't sold as well as Microsoft had hoped, analysts have persistently challenged the company to provide sales numbers for Win2K. This suspicion might contain some truth, though that situation shouldn't really surprise anyone. Companies don't replace something that works with something huge, complex, and new, simply because it's the latest release. Corporations will migrate to Win2K, no doubt about it—but on their schedule, not Microsoft's. For companies that have waited to upgrade, Whistler might just be the incentive they need to jump on the Win2K bandwagon.