The Redmond, Washington, software giant insisted it has not altered its stated plans of shifting the core of its next consumer OS from the DOS-based Windows 98 to a Windows NT "kernel."
But the due date for that release has now been pushed back at least two more years. In the meantime, Microsoft will explore options for extending Windows 98 functionality and stability with interim updates.
"The next major consumer release will be based on the NT kernel," said Bill Zolna, a spokesman for Microsoft. "But that doesn't mean there won't be smaller releases" based on Windows 9X code.
Windows 2000, formerly known as Windows NT 5.0, is intended to be Microsoft's entry into the higher realms of corporate information systems. Eventually, Microsoft will offer a 64-bit version of the OS that offers increased performance by comparison with the initial 32-bit version.
The much-delayed Windows 2000 Professional Edition is expected to be released by the fourth quarter of this year, although some believe it could be pushed back again. Late last year, Microsoft enlisted Compaq's help in developing Windows 2000, and decided to include elements of Compaq's Unix software (which the PC maker acquired with its purchase of Digital Equipment) as well as server technology from Compaq's Tandem division.
The delay also calls into question which version of the NT kernel the consumer OS will be based on. By the time an NT-based consumer version comes out, Windows 2000 will be three years old.
Early last year at the WinHEC conference in Orlando, Florida, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates predicted that a consumer operating system based on Windows NT would be released by 2001.
"As it stands [now], it is three to four years out," Zolna said today.
Any interim updates would extend the life of the operating system in much the same way as the recently released Multimedia Update for Windows 98, Zolna said. The Multimedia Update is a package of enhancements to Microsoft's video and audio applications such as DirectX and Media Player, distributed through the Windows 98 Windows Update site.
"We've always known that as new features and updates become viable solutions, Microsoft will always try to deliver them in the best way possible to users," Zolna said. "This isn't new, or a change in strategy."
The shift to Windows NT is expected to free consumer desktops from the bloated legacy code that has accumulated in the Windows 9X platform, analysts have said. But Windows 2000 demands much heftier processing and memory specifications, which may pose some problems for consumers looking to upgrade.
Microsoft may not be anxious to relive the months after the Windows 98 launch, when many consumers complained about problematic upgrades on older computers. Microsoft was criticized by consumers and analysts for underestimating the minimum system requirements necessary to upgrade older PCs to Windows 98.
And unlike Windows 98's relatively meager requirements, Windows 2000 demands a hefty 64MB of memory and a 300-MHz processor, which may exclude some users from upgrading. By 2003, however, these will be dowdy by computing standards.
"Most normal consumers don't have this hardware available, and won't want to purchase a whole new system to upgrade their OS," according to the BetaNews beta testers Web site, responding to published reports about Microsoft's plans. "Maybe Microsoft has come to its senses and has decided to also release a less intensive operating system."
Although Microsoft has not given a name to any future updates, some of them will consist of Service Packs of bug fixes. "We could add to the functionality to Windows 98, or we could make the product more stable?or add more security updates," Zolna said.
Last week, Microsoft consolidated its beta testing groups for the next Service Pack and OEM Service Release into one testing group, a shift Zolna denies has anything to do with the company's long-term strategy.
"It's not related at all," he said.