All's quiet on the Windows upgrade front

All's quiet on the Windows upgrade front

Having heard so much about Windows 98 and Windows NT 5.0 last year, you could easily believe that 1998 will be a banner year for Microsoft's operating system innovationFeature fatigue, the potential for missed ship dates and the complexity of Windows NT 5.0 could factor into a year in which new, whiz-bang features take a back seat to simply completing the migration to 32-bit Windows.

"There are certain things we really want to take advantage of as quickly as possible with Windows NT 5.0 on the server side, like the Active Directory," said James Moore, a senior systems developer at Nabisco.

"But we don't know when that's going to happen. NT 4.0 is pretty stable, and you're biting off a whole lot with NT 5.0."

Like many corporations, Nabisco will spend 1998 continuing to migrate from a 16-bit to a 32-bit architecture. Moore said 8000 desktops will be upgraded from Windows for workgroups to NT 4.0 by the end of this year.

Stormy weather

Also casting a cloud over IT managers' decisions is the ongoing Department of Justice investigation into Microsoft's method of selling Windows 95 and Windows 98. Because much of the corporate world is oriented towards NT, which is not affected by the consent decree, most IT managers interviewed said it will not directly affect their OS plans this year. Also, PC vendors act as a buffer, shielding corporate IT from any changes in Microsoft's selling practices. Another major factor likely to adversely affect Windows 98 adoption is reports from hardware manufacturers saying they will not be able to support many of the features, such as advanced power management, in Windows 98 until late this year or 1999.

"Windows 98 is a patch with the Active Desktop," said a system consultant for a major OEM.

"The number of folks that are still running the old technology is huge, and they are waiting for the next effort to be worth it. That next effort from Microsoft is not Windows 98; it will be NT 5.0 Workstation."

The Department of Justice aside, Microsoft plans to ship Windows 98 in the first half of this year. NT 5.0's future is murkier. Beta 2 is due in the first half of this year, and if Microsoft executives have a firm ship date, they are keeping it quiet. This, in turn, is creating havoc with migration plans.

"If NT 5.0 is going to slip into mid-1999, we may upgrade people to Windows 98," said David Rossmann, executive vice president at UTSI International, a US oil and gas industry consultancy. "If NT 5.0 was to show up by the end of the year and Windows 98 came out in mid-year, we might bypass [Windows] 98. Ultimately, we go to NT."

Many see a lengthy testing and evaluation cycle after delivery of the final code, given the enterprise-wide role they expect NT 5.0's server to play as it interacts with a breed of higher-octane, host-based platforms including IBM mainframes.

One West Coast-based telecommunications company has made the decision to move a huge base of Windows 3.1 desktop users directly to Windows NT 4.0 by mid-1998. Warren Smith, an IT executive at the company, has taken a cursory look at Windows NT 5.0 server and workstations beta versions, but he has no firm plans to roll them out until well into 1999.

"Based on the beta I saw, they won't be able to deliver much before the end of 1998," Smith said. "They might deliver something, but they will probably have to issue a couple of service packs. It will probably take six to nine months to stabilise."

The enterprise features of NT 5.0 Server, particularly the hierarchical structure of the directory, also make implementation of the upgrade a more complicated task than implementing the upgrade would be with Windows NT 4.0.

"No one I know expects to jump to NT 5.0 until they have taken a good look at it," said Bill Cornfield, president of The Windows User Support Group. "Most of my users tell me they won't touch it on a workstation until it is deployed on all their servers and that means well into 1999 for [NT 5.0] workstations."

Other customers concur

"We have looked at NT [5.0] briefly and there are some things in it that make life both easier and more complicated at the same time. The Kerberos [security] stuff has some interesting possibilities," Smith said.

Perhaps another reason for strolling, instead of dashing, towards NT Workstation 5.0 is the hardware expense involved. Although Microsoft intends to whittle down the operating system's 27 million lines of code, most beta testers now say they need 64MB of memory to do any meaningful evaluation of the product.

"You can run NT 4.0 on 32MB of memory, but with NT 5.0 I have not tried it on anything less than 64," Smith said. "Microsoft has got to get that down. Otherwise, something like Linux could come up and beat the living daylights out of it."

In the end, it is that sort of question IT managers face. While the US government's case against Microsoft plays out in court -- a special master will decide by the end of May whether Microsoft has illegally tied its Internet Explorer 4.0 browser to Windows licences -- the company faces more practical questions.

A slow start

"The big fork in the road with Windows 98 and NT 5.0 will have nothing to do with Microsoft telling its story or . . . with OEM incentives. It will have more to do with how many 16-bit legacy applications they can't afford to throw away or rewrite," said John Chapman, senior technology consultant for Amoco's planning and architectures group.

Despite widespread adoption of 32-bit Windows platforms, International Data Corp estimates there were 7.5 million new copies of Windows 3.1 installed in 1997.

"If we could afford to throw away our 16-bit apps or find an easy way to recompile them into Win32 API compliance, then a lot of us would be a lot further down the road towards NT than we are," Chapman said.

Why we are waiting

Windows 98 will include:

Home market support with some enterprise applications;Tight Internet Explorer 4.0 integration;Television broadcast capabilities; andConfiguration and tune-up tools.

Windows NT 5.0 will include:

Enterprise market support;

Active Directory;

Enhanced security features;

SMP support;

Distributed file system support; and

Plug-and-play technology.

Ephraim Schwartz contributed to this article

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