As we reported in last week's UPDATE, Microsoft has released new exam objectives for its Windows Server 2003 MCSE certifications. Exam 70-290: Managing and Maintaining a Microsoft Windows Server 2003 Environment will go live sometime in April, and the rest of the core exams will go live throughout May and June.

The release of the new exam objectives is of significant consequence for book publishers who are working on MCSE exam-preparation textbooks. Until last week, most of these publishers were probably using the objectives that Microsoft had published for what was then called the Windows .NET Server (Win.NET Server) MCSE track, even though Microsoft later withdrew these objectives. The new objectives that Microsoft released last week differ significantly from the Win.NET Server MCSE exam objectives. Microsoft revamped the objectives, added a new exam, and assigned new numerical designations. The company wanted to make clear that these new objectives had little in common with those that it had originally posted.

The original objectives referred to Exams 70-275, 70-276, and 70-277; the new exams have the designations 70-290, 70-291, 70-293, and 70-294. Many of the first round of exam-preparation textbooks that hit the shelves will have been planned with the 70-27x objectives in mind. Although some overlap exists between the objectives for the 70-27x exams and the 70-29x exams, a 70-27x textbook probably can't adequately prepare you for a real 70-29x exam.

Keep this reality in mind as you consider the first editions of many of the popular exam-certification titles. No one writes a 900-page certification textbook overnight. Even a group of authors working in concert needs several months to put together a comprehensive textbook that deals adequately with all an exam's objectives. And yet within a few weeks of the release of each new exam, the certification section of your local bookstore will have new 2003 MCSE titles on the shelf. How well will these first editions map to the exam objectives, given that Microsoft has radically revamped the objectives?

Publishing companies need to balance good exam coverage with the need to get their products to the market quickly. Obviously, the market rewards the early arrivals. Regardless of quality, the first textbooks will fly off the shelves, in part because few alternatives will exist. As a result, authors feel the pressure to finish their manuscripts as quickly as possible.

But just because a publishing company is ready to push a textbook out the door doesn't mean that the book will address the exam objectives adequately or in a way that suits your learning style. If you're an early adopter, you must weigh your desire to be among the first to earn the MCSE 2003 designation against the possibility that you'll shell out money for textbooks that contain irrelevant material.

I recommend that you wait. Read a few reviews of the new textbooks before you commit to one. As always, the shelves will contain some gems and some dogs. If you can wait until next year, you'll know for sure which textbooks are worth their weight in gold and which are destined for the recycling bin. Be aware that many of the textbooks published in the next few months will be based on out-of-date exam objectives. Unless you have a desperate need to be certified as an MCSE on Windows 2003, it's probably be a good idea to take a "wait-and-see" attitude.