Microsoft shipped beta 3 of Windows 2000 to CD manufacturers, the company announced in a conference call. Beta testers will receive their CDs in two to four weeks. In addition, some PC makers will ship limited numbers of computers loaded with the upcoming operating systems. Other PC companies are launching readiness kits and Web-based support, but stopping short of offering Windows 2000 beta 3 on shipping computers.
"This is a fairly large project for us," said Brian Valentine, vice president of development for the business enterprise division at Microsoft. "This is a very significant release for us. It means a lot not only to Microsoft, but also to our partners."
The spotlight is on the software giant to finally deliver an update for its corporate-focused operating system, following several setbacks. The upgrade represents the linchpin of Microsoft's strategy to grab a larger chunk of the lucrative high-end corporate-computing market.
"It really is a big deal," said Dwight Davis, an analyst at Summit Strategies. "Because it's being characterized as beta code that has been to tuned to approach performance Microsoft hopes to deliver with the final code."
Beta 3 is "feature complete," according to Jim Ewel, director of the Enterprise Windows and Infrastructure group at Microsoft, comparing the lengthy process of developing and testing Windows 2000 to a "marathon--and we still have a few miles to go."
Windows 2000 has indeed been beset by delays, and despite reports that the company is internally targeting an October release date, Ewel will only confirm that the new client-and-server platform is set to be released by the end of this year. Ewel doesn't expect a surge in sales until the first quarter of 2000 as many organizations will be consumed with testing to prepare for the Year 2000 bug.
Computers need at least 64MB of RAM, a 300-MHz processor, and support for the new euro currency to run Windows 2000, Microsoft has said in the past. "It's highly unusual for [PC makers] to offer beta code, and it may suggest that they have as much a vested interest in having Windows 2000 succeed as Microsoft," Davis said, noting that machines which can run the computing-intensive operating system tend to be high profit-margin systems.
The Windows 2000 upgrade has evolved from Windows NT 5 and split into Windows 2000 Professional, the desktop version for corporations, Windows 2000 Server, Windows 2000 Advanced Server, and Windows 2000 Data Server. The upcoming server operating systems will provide increasing levels of support for processor clustering and advanced Internet services.
The latest beta includes key interface and performance improvements, Ewel said. The improved Windows 2000 Professional interface includes new "intelligent menus" which remember a user's most-used selections, as well as increased Internet Explorer 5 integration.
Microsoft upgraded its Redmond, Washington-area servers to Windows 2000 this month, he said, and "broad deployment within Microsoft," will take place during the beta period. Active Directory, a key component for the server-based version of the software, has also been deployed across the campus.
The server platforms have seen major improvements in performance, he said, pointing to improved power management for notebooks, network load balancing, and improvements in reducing downtime during upgrades.
"I've learned over the years to not totally discount everything Microsoft says, but I do discount their release schedules," Davis said. "I think the engineers truly believe it will be more reliable, but I would be more impressed if they had shipped it two years ago."
Windows NT has not always been known for its reliability, but Ewel emphasized enhancements resulting in fewer reboots, increased system-file protection, and higher-quality software drivers for peripherals. Ewel noted that even Unix-based Web sites like eBay and Schwab have experienced a number of outages in the last several months.