Microsoft has a date for Windows 2000

Windows 2000 won't easily shed the "often-delayed" tag, but Microsoft's promises to release it before the new millennium seem to be on track.

In an internal e-mail to development staff, Windows 2000 leaders on Wednesday congratulated the team for meeting a key milestone of the third and final beta, and set a goal for shipping the final version: October 6.

The timetable, which also lays out several interim milestones, affords plenty of wiggle room. Knowing that enterprise customers demand much higher reliability than consumers, Microsoft has pledged not to ship Windows 2000 until it's good and ready. But the breathing room may not be needed. The team is riding what one Microsoft source familiar with the progress described as a revival since Brian Valentine replaced Moshe Dunie as project lead.

Promoted in a December management shakeup to vice president of Windows development, Valentine's stock rose quickly during his previous work on the Exchange e-mail server. Known as a rah-rah motivator, he once rode a motorcycle into a meeting dressed as Elvis.

This week's milestone, which brings the important third beta version of Windows 2000 about a month away from customers' hands, was set in January, when Valentine sent a memo exhorting his troops to give it their all. "Our credibility is on the line here," Valentine wrote. "We have to deliver."

Microsoft officials have long pegged Windows 2000, until recently known as NT 5.0, as the highest priority at the company. Just last week, president Steve Ballmer -- no slouch himself when it comes to firing up the troops -- told the Windows 2000 team that its product was the only important software project of 1999.

The operating system, which Microsoft hopes will propel it into markets now dominated by computers from IBM, Sun Microsystems, Hewlett-Packard and others, is a key component of its Internet strategy. As more transactions, commerce and communications take place over company networks and the Internet, the software of the next decade will increasingly run on huge, data-crunching systems, as well as on televisions, phones and handheld computers -- not on PCs. Microsoft needs to translate its PC desktop stronghold into success in both larger and smaller machines.

According to sources at last week's meeting, Ballmer emphasised that Windows 2000 must run the Web's largest sites. He cited Amazon.com, which runs its service on Unix servers, as the type of high-profile site Microsoft needs to win over. (Amazon's fierce rival Barnesandnoble.com was one of the customers featured in Ballmer's speech at the launch of Microsoft's SQL 7.0 database last November at Comdex.) To date, Windows NT 4.0 -- the predecessor to Windows 2000 -- has made inroads in the business market, but is generally regarded as falling short of the power needed to handle the heaviest Web traffic without breaking down.

The massive Windows 2000 undertaking, with as many as 2000 developers devoted to it, has been beset by delays. Top executives have been distracted by the Department of Justice's antitrust case. Meanwhile the timeline to release a consumer version of Windows 2000 as the successor to Windows 98 has been pushed back indefinitely. Instead, Windows 98 will get a "second edition" release later this year, with bug fixes and the just-released Internet Explorer 5.0 bundled with it.

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