Last week, I discussed Microsoft's ever-evolving security roadmap, a plan that calls for the software giant to shore up its current products during the lull before the next-generation Microsoft SQL Server Yukon and Windows Longhorn waves. In a propitious bit of coincidence, this week, I can finally start discussing Microsoft's suddenly changing Windows release plans, thanks to the expiration of an agreement I made with the company. Specifically, I want to discuss the next Windows Server version, code-named R2 (for "release 2"), then move on to more publicly available information about a possible Windows XP upgrade, code-named XP Reloaded; however, a more enterprise-oriented version, code-named D2 (Get it? R2-D2), might also be in the works. Let's jump right in.

Windows Server 2003 R2
When Microsoft was developing Windows 2000, I bemoaned the company's inability to ship that product and argued that it should have released the Win2K technologies over time, instead of waiting for one Win2K monolithic release. In the end, Win2K was years late and was a huge complicated product that customers moved to very slowly. I blame this migration slowness on Active Directory (AD), which was then new to most Windows NT administrators (unless, ahem, you had Novell experience), and Group Policy, which I always saw as the "killer app" behind AD; unfortunately, I also found Group Policy difficult to implement in Win2K. Give Microsoft some credit for learning from experience. Yes, the Win2K follow-up, dubbed Windows Server 2003 after approximately 17 name changes, was also late to market and evolved repeatedly during development, but with this release, attitudes had changed at the software giant. Rather than wait to include every conceivable product in the OS, Microsoft carefully examined the potential feature set and pushed aside everything that wasn't core to the product or wouldn't fit into a wider release schedule. These other bits of software--initially dubbed out-of-band (OOB) updates (software included with Windows 2003 was presumably in-band)--are now called feature packs and are available from the Microsoft Web site. Examples of Windows 2003 feature packs include Group Policy Management Console (GPMC), Software Update Services (SUS), Windows SharePoint Services, and Windows Rights Management Services (RMS). Some feature packs are free, while others require licensing. If you consider these feature packs as part of the OS (as Microsoft does), the staged rollout of Windows 2003 continued for several months after its April 2003 launch, and today, numerous feature packs are available. That's where R2 comes in. R2 will combine all the free feature packs back into the core OS, providing customers who haven't yet upgraded with one integrated installation point for an improved Windows Server product that will be released before Longhorn. Yes, that's right--before Longhorn. Contrary to previous plans, Microsoft won't call this next Windows Server update Blackcomb, and the company won't ship it alongside Windows Longhorn client products. Exact timing, other features, pricing, and so on are yet to be determined, and I'll report back as soon as I learn any details.

Windows XP D2
One other tidbit I heard a while back is that the R2 release might be accompanied by an interim client upgrade dubbed D2. Presumably a second release of XP, D2 would include the business-oriented client updates that Microsoft has released since Windows 2003. I don't yet know whether this release is still happening, but last week, Microsoft did reveal that an XP update code-named XP Reloaded would likely ship in late 2004. Essentially a consumer-oriented repackaging of XP plus Service Pack 2 (SP2), a new Windows Media Player (WMP) version, and other "fun" features, XP Reloaded doesn't sound much like D2 to me, at least not right now. But I can see Microsoft morphing the professional edition of XP Reloaded into the D2 release that was described to me, so you never know. I've asked Microsoft to clarify the XP Reloaded feature set, but currently, the company wants to focus on its security-oriented XP SP2 release, which will ship by mid-2004. That focus makes sense: In addition to making XP more secure in an abstract sense, Microsoft also wants to ensure that as many customers as possible move to SP2, and it's going to expend a lot of time and marketing muscle to make sure that happens. News of an interim XP release will only muddle customers' decision-making process.

Longhorn
All these updates might make you think that the next Windows release--code-named Longhorn--will be delayed even further. Well, you're right: Recently, Microsoft representatives admitted that XP SP2 (and, to a lesser extent, R2) have pulled people away from active Longhorn work, and that Longhorn won't be on the fast track again until SP2. Microsoft sources tell me that the company hasn't developed a new Longhorn build since late last year and had instead told its various product groups to keep working on specific Longhorn technologies, while the wider Windows team rallied to get XP SP2 out the door. Indeed, XP SP2 was given such high priority that Todd Wanke, previously in charge of the Windows 2003 War Room, was put in charge of XP SP2. I expect this change will result in a high-quality release, based on my previous experience with Wanke (for more details, see "Windows Server 2003: The Road To Gold Part Two: Developing Windows" on the SuperSite for Windows at http://www.winsupersite.com/article/reviews/windows-server-2003-the-road-to-gold-part-two-developing-windows.aspx ). For Longhorn, this XP focus means the potential release date just keeps slipping further and further into the future. I won't hazard a guess about the final release date, but if Microsoft makes the beta 1 milestone by the end of this summer, I'll be surprised. On the record, the company has promised only beta 1 this year and beta 2 sometime in 2005. But off the record, I've heard that Longhorn, unlike most previous Windows betas, will include several beta releases. Where that places the final release is, of course, unknown, and your guess is as good as mine.

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