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Is Windows Vista on a Slippery Slope?

After weeks of being cagey about shipping Windows Vista on schedule, Microsoft did a turnabout late Tuesday. The upshot: Vista will go to corporate customers in November, but all consumer releases are delayed until January.

What’s the hold up? Assuring quality, according to Microsoft. Clearly, that means a lot of testing and bug fixes, though the senior executive in charge of Vista repeatedly declined to elaborate on what’s left to accomplish on the road to shipment.

“We’ve set out to build the highest quality operating system that we’ve ever done,” Jim Allchin, co-president of Microsoft's Platforms and Services Division, told media and analysts on a quickly scheduled conference call on Tuesday afternoon.

The latest community technology preview (CTP), released in February, brought Vista up to “feature-complete” status, and the company does not anticipate any other addition or removal of features, Allchin said.

Microsoft officials said last month that with what they called then the “enterprise CTP,” currently Vista test code is available to about half a million testers. The final CTP – referred to as the “consumer CTP” – is planned for next quarter and will be available to a much broader audience, to as many as two million testers, officials said.

After the last CTP, Microsoft will release one or more release candidates until no more so-called “showstopper” bugs are found by testers. At that point, it will be released to manufacturing or RTM.

Rumors that Microsoft’s delivery schedule was slipping again first surfaced early this month.

The current delay appears to have its roots in changes Microsoft instituted about midway through Vista’s test cycle, with the goal of testing the software more thoroughly earlier in the process than previous Windows versions, thus improving the quality of the final product. At least, that’s Microsoft’s rationale.

So in November, Microsoft rejiggered its development track for Vista, when it went from having one or two very large beta tests in the product development cycle to having multiple CTPs. Instead of being on a calendar schedule, however, the criteria for releasing new CTPs shifted to quality-driven milestones. There were questions then, about whether Microsoft’s delivery schedule was slipping off track.

When the company delivered the enterprise CTP in February, however, officials said that they had delivered a feature-complete version of the new operating system earlier in the test cycle than any previous version. This, theoretically, should mean that the test cycle from here on out should be shorter, not longer. No such luck.

But one key question remains. Given that Microsoft has already had to remove major features – most notably the upcoming new object-oriented file system dubbed WinFS for “Future Storage”– in order to remain on schedule, and then changed shipping schedules anyway, how can officials be certain there won’t be another slip?

At least one major financial analyst on Tuesday’s conference call was surprised that Microsoft could know so precisely at this point when it will finally ship Vista, given that the company had been claiming it would ship by the end of 2006 for nearly a year.

Microsoft plans to deliver all versions of Vista, including consumer versions, in November, which technically meets Microsoft’s promise to deliver the product this year, Allchin asserted.

“I’m still a little surprised you can be so precise [about the timing],” analyst Rick Sherlund of investment bank Goldman Sachs, repeated.

The news is not necessarily bad for corporate customers or for Microsoft investors. After all, many, if not most, corporate customers plan to take a year to 18 months to test and begin deploying Vista after it’s commercial release. It just makes good sense for Microsoft to get Vista into their hands for testing as early as possible in order to advance that process, officials argue.

But because its fiscal year begins July 1, the first quarters of income from sales of Vista will still fall within Microsoft’s fiscal 2007, Allchin pointed out.

On the consumer side, however, the announcement carries the threat of a bad holiday season for PC OEMs, who had been waiting for a glitzy new OS to help them move boxes. Microsoft credited the OEMs with much of the impetus to delay Vista. PC manufacturers typically need anywhere from six weeks to two months to test a new Windows release with their hardware and fill the channel with product.

Allchin said the company had consulted with its OEMs and partners and found that some, but not all, could get Vista on their PCs in stores in time if it stayed on its then current schedule. Rather than favoring some OEMs over others, Microsoft finally decided that the best thing to do was to delay.

“We’re trying to do the responsible thing here,” Allchin added. That may be little consolation for PC OEMs, however.

“No matter how I look at it, the news is a blow to many Microsoft partners [because] they won't have Windows Vista to sell during the lucrative holiday sales season,” JupiterResearch operating systems analyst Joe Wilcox commented in his Weblog.

“Knowing is better than not knowing [about the delay], but will that make people postpone purchasing decisions?” wonders Michael Cherry, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft. Cherry also worries about small and medium businesses that do not have access to enterprise agreements and have less control over when they make purchases than enterprise customers.

“[They may] buy something, knowing it’ll run Windows XP SP2 but may not have the power to run Vista,” Cherry adds.

That leaves Goldman Sachs analyst Sherlund’s nagging question. Can Microsoft know when it will ship at this point?

That is: What’s to keep Vista from sliding further (for both consumers and corporate customers)?

Cherry, who once worked at Microsoft said he will know more after the company releases the consumer CTP next quarter – originally thought to mean April, but now perhaps later. “The real test for me is when I can do my own day-to-day work on it,” he adds.

No matter how it’s spun, however, one unalterable fact remains. “I see today's announcement essentially meaning almost no customers will get Windows Vista in 2006 -- and so that's pretty much a widespread delay,” Wilcox said.

About the Author

Stuart J. Johnston has covered technology, especially Microsoft, since February 1988 for InfoWorld, Computerworld, Information Week, and PC World, as well as for Enterprise Developer, XML & Web Services, and .NET magazines.

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