While Microsoft has a good track record of hitting its release targets for minor operating systems, its history with large, complex overhauls such as Windows Vista is far spottier, according to Gartner, which in a Monday research note predicted a further delay in Windows Vista's release.
Take Windows 2000, for example. Originally called Windows NT5, the operating system's development became "problematic" as requirements kept being added late in its development, Gartner analysts noted. Those development changes meant the time between the Windows 2000 beta 2 release -- in August 1998 -- and the final release to manufacturing in December 1999 took 16 months.
"One should never overestimate how much Microsoft will underestimate the complexity and time needed to deliver a major new client OS," wrote Gartner.
By contrast, Windows XP, which the research firm described as a "relatively minor release built on Windows 2000" took only five months of polishing from its 2nd beta to its final release in October 2001. Windows 98 Second Edition and Windows Millennium Edition also came out "largely on time," wrote Gartner.
Vista, which includes major new security improvements and graphical user interface enhancements, was originally due out in 2004 as part of Microsoft's preferred schedule of releasing new client operating systems every three years. But its release date was pushed back several times until Microsoft committed last year to have the OS out in time for the Christmas 2006 season. Then, in March, the company announced that the release would be delayed into early 2007. But Microsoft has yet to deliver beta 2 for Vista, which will be tested by as many as two million users.
"We remain on track to deliver Windows Vista Beta 2 in the second quarter and to deliver the final product to volume license customers in November 2006 and to other businesses and consumers in January 2007," said Sarah Williams, a Microsoft spokesperson. Even if Microsoft meets its goal for beta 2, Gartner pointed out that that would only leave five months before Vista's scheduled release to large business customers.
"We believe more time is required between a stable, feature-complete Beta 2 and [release to manufacturing] to accommodate the issues expected during broad testing and allow for at least two Release Candidates," wrote Gartner. The research firm said Microsoft will likely need at least nine to 12 months to clean up and fix bugs found in Vista after the beta 2 release, moving a final release date to between April and June 2007. Microsoft is unlikely to let Vista slip past that because of internal pressure related to financial targets surrounding its fiscal year end in June.
Microsoft asserts that it can still keep to its current schedule because it has improved upon its process for building Vista as compared with past OSes.
"The engineering and feedback processes in Windows Vista are different - and better -- than they have been with earlier operating systems," said Williams. "The changes we've made have allowed us to deliver a more complete test version of the product to customers earlier than ever before and to incorporate more timely and relevant feedback faster, and they will enable us to deliver the highest quality operating system ever built."
Delay or not, Gartner advised large companies to "adopt managed diversity, bringing in new PCs with new OSes as early as possible, and don't upgrade established PCs."
Companies still widely using the older Windows 2000 on the desktop should start testing beta 2 of Vista as soon as possible, wrote Gartner.
Enterprises on Windows XP, however, "can be a little more leisurely" and begin planning for a three-month pilot of Windows Vista in the first 12 to 15 months after it ships.
Gartner also said that companies considering a one-year extension to their Enterprise Agreement (EA) or Software Assurance (SA) contracts during the next six months in order to get Windows Vista should negotiate a clause that guarantees such an upgrade.
"Understand that Windows Vista Enterprise can be installed only on PCs you own; after SA expires, Windows Vista Enterprise cannot be installed on PCs you buy to replace ones formerly covered by SA," Gartner wrote.