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The saga of Blackcomb and Longhorn continues

May 14, 20033 mins
Enterprise ApplicationsMicrosoft

* What is happening with Microsoft's future Windows releases?

Windows Server 2003 is barely out in the marketplace and the pundits only want to talk about Microsoft’s next operating systems releases.

At last week’s Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) conference, the big news for those of us who follow operating systems was that the next version of Windows –  codenamed “Longhorn” and the successor to Windows XP – won’t ship until 2005. Of course, at last year’s WinHEC, we were told Longhorn would be “delayed” until 2004 (see: Maybe by next year the date will be pushed further back into 2006.

The news about Blackcomb – another operating system, though, is far more confusing. In fact, the story of Blackcomb is a lot like one of those old movie serials I used to watch on Saturday afternoons when I was but a wee lad.

Originally, Longhorn and Blackcomb were to be in-line versions of the 32-bit Windows operating system built on the NT kernel (like Windows 2000 and Windows XP). Longhorn would follow XP, and Blackcomb would follow it in turn. Each would come in a server and a desktop version (just like Windows 2000 and, as we thought at the time, XP).

When XP became solely the name of a desktop operating system (with the server being dubbed Windows .Net Server before finally becoming Windows Server 2003), Longhorn and Blackcomb were also split – the former becoming the XP successor while the latter would be the follow-on to Win 2K3. We still thought, though, that the desktop and server operating system would release simultaneously. Then that changed.

With XP releasing more than years ahead of Windows Server 2003, someone in Redmond decided that rather than launch a new operating system every four years, much marketing benefit could be gained by alternating releases of desktop and server operating systems every two years (see “How Microsoft is keeping the cash registers ringing” This led to a variation of the “chicken and egg” problem – do you build features into the desktop operating system that won’t be usable until the next server operating system ships, or do you build features into the server operating system that can’t be used until the next desktop operating system ships?

Faced with that quandary, Microsoft (in the persona of corporate vice president David Thompson) got up at WinHEC and, with a straight face, announced that Blackcomb won’t actually launch as a new server operating system sometime in 2007 or 2008, but will be a series of on-going upgrades and updates to Windows Server 2003. The idea is that as new technologies become available to the desktop (either XP or Longhorn) the enabling technologies for the server will be rolled out. It’s being called “out-of-band” upgrades, but looks a lot like modular services.

So that’s where we are today. I expect that, real soon now, someone at Microsoft may realize that there’s no revenue model for these “out of band” updates and upgrades. Up until now, there’s been no charge for updates but that would have to change if it meant you bought an operating system once and were able to keep it up to date for many, many years simply by downloading and installing a patch. Watch for subscription services to raise its head again. We’ll take a look at that next time.