According to a story by the IDG News Service (link below), Bill Gates last week all but confirmed that Microsoft's target for shipping the next desktop version of Windows, codenamed "Longhorn," is now 2006. Since I've been saying that since last fall, I do feel a little smug.But some of the other things Chairman Gates said just added to the confusion. Up until very recently, Microsoft "unnamed spokespeople" were touting a beta release sometime this year. Gates, though, called for an alpha release later this year. Now an "alpha" release, it has always been my understanding, was the very first release of a proposed piece of software. Only a tiny number of people outside of the vendor's shop would ever get a look at it and then only if they promised to provide extensive feedback on it.Yet, the IDG News Service quotes Gates as saying: "We will have an alpha release out this year that everybody can look at." No other software company I know would even consider releasing alpha product to just anyone who wanted to look at it. Alpha software is, by its very nature, full of bugs and glitches. The large majority of alpha releases I've ever seen eventually crashed and burned, taking software, data and sometimes even hardware along with it. Not only should it never be placed on a production network, it should never be placed on your testing lab network. Alpha software should only exist on a stand-alone system that you won't miss when it dies. Maybe in this case "alpha" is a marketing term for "How can we generate some Longhorn revenue this year?" If Microsoft asks you to pay for this version, then the marketing reason is probably why.Of course, whether the release Gates is talking about is actual alpha software, or some form of "early beta" is open to question. Microsoft does play fast and loose with naming conventions most of the time. The folks who attended Redmond's Professional Developers Conference last October received what was called a "preview" version of Longhorn, but "preview," to me, indicates slideware or a Flash demo, certainly nothing you could install and play with. So the PDC attendees really got an alpha version. Confused? I know I am.When some form of Longhorn gets released later this year, though, remember two things: don't pay any money for it and don't put it on a networked system - even a network in the test lab.