Microsoft users stand not so much at a crossroads as a spaghetti junction of potential upgrade paths. Should cautious users who have stayed with NT4 migrate to Windows 2000 or wait for Windows .net? What has happened to Windows 2002, which offered the reassurance of continuity from Windows 2000, with none of the risks of early adoption?
On the client side, users of Windows 95 and 98 who were planning an upgrade to Windows 2000 are being variously advised (by Gartner among others) not to change their plans, and (by IDC) to purchase only XP from now on.
Changes to Microsoft's licensing system pile on additional, financial pressure and undermine the return-on-investment case for upgrading.
Adding the .net tag to the next release implies a major technology change. Yet Bill Gates himself told the October 2001 Professional Developers' Conference that 2003 would be the next major milestone in terms of Windows releases.
The idea may be to get users to start thinking about .net, and the new operating system does include the .net framework, with native support for Soap (Simple Object Access Protocol), and UDDI (Universal Description, Discovery and Integration). But there is little or nothing they can do with .net yet, and by sticking a new label on what are essentially unchanged technologies, Microsoft risks provoking cynicism among a community already suffering from uncertainty and fatigue where upgrades are concerned.
To add to the pointlessness of the renaming, users of Windows 2000 and other operating systems will have access to the .net technologies anyway.
Microsoft's avowed strategy is to alternate major and minor releases, providing a settling in period after each major change, and enabling those who do not want to be at the bleeding edge to wait until the product is stable. However, over the past couple of years the company has taken to announcing the next major release - and the one after that - before the latest one has gained widespread acceptance. Most damagingly for sales, the .net strategy was announced before shipments of Windows 2000 had overtaken those of NT4.
Name changes have added to the confusion. In April, we were told that the next product in the NT server family was to be Windows 2002, implying a relationship to Windows 2000 rather like that of Windows 98 to 95. In June, Microsoft changed the name to Windows Server .net, implying that it was to be a major release. It isn't.
Windows 2002/.net Server is the server half of the Whistler development - the counterpart of the Windows XP client. Having announced that XP marked the unification of its operating system code bases on Windows 2000, Microsoft is now selling its operating systems under three different brands - 2000, XP and .net.
Gartner says the Windows .net Server naming should be considered a branding change, not a fundamental technology change. The only significant feature is that it comes with the CLR (Common Language Runtime), which makes it .net-ready and pre-integrated. Gartner warns that the CLR is completely new functionality and should be considered suspect until the end of 2002.
"Regardless of the name, enterprises should consider this a point release upgrade to Windows 2000, with minor but potentially useful improvements in Active Directory and manageability in general." says Gartner. "Enterprises in the process of rolling out Windows 2000 Server today do not need to wait for Windows .net Server. However, enterprises planning to deploy Active Directory in mid-2002 or later should strongly consider Windows .net Server as their target," Because of its closeness to Windows 2000, Gartner does not anticipate fundamental stability issues with .net Server.
Earlier this year, stung by criticisms that its decisions to end support for older operating systems, were arbitrary and unfair, Microsoft published its policy on client operating system lifecycles. This states that an operating system is "mainstream" and fully supported for three years after release. After this, OEMs cannot licence it directly from Microsoft, and support becomes fee-based. This "extended'" phase lasts for a year, after which it is "non-supported".
Some older operating systems have been granted longer life. NT Workstation 4, for example, does not enter the extended phase until July 2002, and will be non-supported from July 2003. Windows 2000, however, ends its mainstream existence in March 2003.
The mainstream phase does not look so generous when you consider that risk-averse businesses may prefer to wait a year, or even two, for a new release to stabilise. Gartner analysts believe that, because of the complexity of new operating system adoptions and the desire to standardise on a release, the mainstream life needs to be five years, with a two-year extended phase.
Unless enough of its customers protest at Microsoft's churn-and-burn release cycle, the supported life of an operating system is likely to remain four years. This may make it impossible to standardise completely on one release without the regular upheaval of an enterprise-wide upgrade.
Organisations may instead adopt a strategy of "managed diversity", introducing XP only where they can justify the cost of upgrading or replacing a PC, and running older releases on the rest. Analysts agree there is little to be gained by upgrading indiscriminately from Windows 2000 Professional to Windows XP Professional. But companies that have not made significant investments in Windows 2000 should consider skipping it and deploying Windows XP Professional - although the cost of training staff and ensuring application compatibility need to be considered.
IDC predicts that XP will appear in corporate accounts within a few months, and that it will account for 67% of Microsoft's worldwide client operating environment license shipments during 2002. However, while IDC sees Windows XP as Microsoft's best client operating system to date, it does not expect it to create a surge in total client operating system shipments.
New PC sales plunged in the second half of 2001, and are expected to remain below 2000 levels in 2002. As a rule of thumb, only PCs manufactured after January 2000 - just one-third of the UK's 25 million PCs - have the muscle to run XP, which may make Windows 2000 Professional the only viable upgrade path for older PCs running Windows 95/98 and NT4 Workstation.
But how many organisations will undergo the cost and disruption of upgrading to an operating system that has already been superseded? On the server side, Microsoft says Windows .net server is fully compatible and interoperable with Windows 2000 Server. So users may choose to upgrade piecemeal where there is a genuine cost-benefit.
While the .net servers pretty much correspond to the Windows 2000 servers - with the exception of the all-new Web Server edition, which seems to be a rival for Linux Web servers - Microsoft has quietly changed the configurations in a way that will instantly transform some SMEs into enterprises for licensing purposes.
The Standard Edition will support just two CPUs, rather than four, as Windows 2000 does. A licence for Windows 2000 Advanced Server - the current equivalent of the .net Enterprise Server - costs four times as much as the standard edition.
However, in general, Microsoft's new licensing scheme will work out cheaper for those who upgrade to new versions as soon as they become available. They will pay a single annual upgrade fee, while those who insist on sticking with older versions will have to buy a new licence when they do eventually upgrade. "For businesses, Microsoft's new volume licensing terms will both encourage and mandate that businesses obtain the most current technology for their client operating environment purchases," IDC says.
However, there is a compromise for those who do not want to upgrade: the so-called "downgrade rights", whereby you can, for example, pay for a Windows 2000 licence but deploy NT4, or buy an XP Professional licence and deploy Windows 2000 Professional, and only upgrade to the new operating system you have paid for when you are ready.