Free MS upgrades are meaningless to most users

It was a momentous week: there was darkness at noon, the undead walked the streets, and Microsoft Licensing v6 came into effect.

It was a momentous week: there was darkness at noon, the undead walked the streets, and Microsoft Licensing v6 came into effect.

The timing was brilliant. Under the new Software Assurance deals, corporates get free upgrades to the latest Microsoft programs just when meaningful upgrades seem to be disappearing over the horizon.

I can only speak for Schofield Intergalactic Text Enterprises, of course, but my production systems are solidly based on Windows 2000 and Office 2000. Apart from the application of the new Service Pack 3, I cannot see the need for a major upgrade within the lifespan of the hardware.

I am keen on upgrades, and my last two were big wins. I have saved in downtime because Windows 98SE used to crash two or three times a month, whereas Win2000 has not crashed for 15 months. (In fairness to Microsoft, Me can be more robust: my clean install went from 27 December to 19 April without crashing.) Office 2000 has been wonderful, and when I get lumbered with Office 97, half of it feels broken.

Alas, neither Office XP nor Windows for Teletubbies offers enough advantages for my somewhat simple purposes. In fact, my needs were met for most of a decade by Xywrite for Dos.

Your mileage may vary. For example, XP is a huge advance for the knuckle-draggers still on 98SE. It also looks compelling in multilingual, multinational contexts, offers better Dos support, and is much more accessible to naive users. If I ran an inner-city school, university or borstal, I would upgrade like a shot.

But Longhorn, the next serious Windows upgrade, is still a long way off. It has got to include .net, consolidated storage (to answer the technical question Bill Gates poses: "Where's my stuff?"), Palladium, and a bunch of task-oriented "scenarios" that got dropped from XP. Further, sizeable chunks of what exists will have to be reworked to provide the trustworthy platform Microsoft is promising.

Let's assume it takes two years to write plus a year to beta test, then add a year because every version of Windows is one or two years late. Most IT departments are not sufficiently well organised to start rolling out an operating system upgrade until its first service pack is in sight, which adds another year. In sum, I cannot see Longhorn hitting many corporate desktops until 2005 or, more likely, 2006.

When does your Software Assurance scheme run out?

Jack Schofield is computer editor at The Guardian

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