If the beta 1 release of "Whistler", the transitional name for the latest version of Windows, is any indication of what's in store, Microsoft will continue to dominate the desktop and server room for years to come.
A rough cut of Whistler, which became available to developers, vendors and selected customers last month, boasts many significant new features and is sure to be a big hit among businesses and home users alike. In fact, we expect many shops to taylor their upgrade plans to coincide with the general release of this improved OS, although the big day may still be a year or more away, and early reports of a Windows 2001 release appear premature.
In addition to showing great promise both in corporate desktop and server roles, Whistler will also replace the Windows 95, 98, and 2000 platforms as Microsoft's prime consumer desktop OS. Because Whistler allows Windows 95 and NT applications to run in "compatibility mode", it can tackle a wide range of applications that would most likely slow down or completely crash Windows NT or 2000.
Companies that have already begun migrating to Windows 2000 should face no major hassles moving to Whistler, but the best results with the new OS will come from newly purchased equipment.
The minimum requirement for the client versions of the Whistler beta is a 233MHz Pentium II or higher, with 64MB of RAM, but we recommend double the RAM, and double -- better yet, triple -- the clock speed. For testing purposes, it's probably safe to assume that a system on the Windows 2000 Hardware Compatibility List will work.
Though no one expects a Beta 1 release to be feature-complete, we were disappointed to find that a desperately needed set of domain management tools failed to make it into this latest version. These tools, which would permit the movement of objects from one Active Directory tree to another in a "prune and graft" fashion, will not appear in Whistler. Instead, administrators will be forced to continue maintaining users in multiple trees, with the associated complexity of management to go with it.
But there is good news as well. Microsoft has simplified its installation process, which we found to be as easy as the setup of Apple Computer's Mac OS X Public Beta 1. Installing Whistler required little more than choosing administration passwords, selecting language and region preferences, and inputting network settings. Whistler also supports the installation and management of "headless" machines -- computers with no user input devices or monitors -- a growing trend in far-flung but short-staffed operations.
But don't assume that the new OS will simply snap into your existing testing environment. Because Whistler domain controllers use specific features in the Active Directory schema, you'll have to upgrade at least one DC (Domain Controller) running Windows 2000 to Whistler before you can add Whistler DCs to your forest.
And don't expect Whistler to support all the protocols that NT did either; DLC and NetBEUI are gone, desktops will no longer speak AppleTalk, and IPX is off the menu for the Whistler versions that will run on Intel's 64-bit Itanium processor family.
Whistler's revamped UI (user interface) is a departure from the 3D look that has dominated UIs for the last decade and appears flatter, "Webified" as it were; disconcerting at first, but appealing soon after.
Also, browsing points for the local machine and network have moved off the desktop and onto the Start menu, which takes advantage of the "smart menus" technology found in recent Microsoft products, such as Office 2000 and Windows 2000. Experienced users may find the UI changes a bit jarring, but they should adapt to it with minimal or zero retraining.
One more possible perk: Microsoft plans to ship its server versions of Whistler after releasing the Whistler desktops, which may give the company a chance to ship the servers with Service Pack 1 built-in (as it did with Windows 2000 Datacenter Server). The inclusion of this bug-fixing package may convince many otherwise hesitant corporate buyers to close the deal.
Although Whistler as a beta is by definition unsuitable for prime time, the OS looks like a future winner. If Microsoft can get the desktop versions ready for next fall -- which signifies the beginning of the fiscal year and the approach of the holiday season -- it will catch consumers and corporate purchasers at the best possible time. In any case, smart enterprises will keep a business-savvy eye on Whistler's development. Microsoft plans to deliver big with this one.
BUSINESS CASE: If your company is planning a Windows 2000 migration over the next six to 12 months, it might be wise to wait for Microsoft's release of Whistler. Whatever the final name of this OS, its improved management, administration, and application compatibility features will make it well worth the wait.
TECHNOLOGY CASE: Whistler reunifies the Windows family under the Windows 2000 code base and offers improved installation and management features over previous versions of the OS.
+ Application compatibility features allow companies to ditch aging Win9x systems without forcing rewrites of every application.
+ Unified code base means less work for developers, simpler choices for customers.
- New operating system means new security holes- Domain management tools still not up to parPLATFORMS: Intel 32-bit/64-bit systems.
PRICE: Not yet determined.
SHIP DATE: End of 2001/beginning 2002.