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Microsoft steps up NT efforts

The giant plans to roll out a second test version of its Windows NT 5.0 operating system to hundreds of thousands of users.

SEATTLE--It's official.

Though the pressure is on Microsoft to deliver, executives from the firm set a confident tone as the software giant announced plans to roll out a second test version of its Windows NT 5.0 operating system to hundreds of thousands of users.

Release of the second beta version of the NT software this week, as previously reported, represents a significant development since it is the first version to include all the necessary infrastructure that will appear in the final product, according to company executives.

Calling the NT 5.0 effort "the most comprehensive platform we've ever built," Jim Allchin, senior vice president for Microsoft's personal and business systems division, said the technology in the second beta version of the Workstation, Server, and Enterprise Edition upgrades is basically all there, something that was not true of the initial beta release.

"We feel really good about the progress," Allchin said.

The second beta, released to manufacturing early yesterday evening, will be sent to 45,000 technical user beta sites, 25,000 sales channel partners, and 200,000 independent developers. About 200 attendees at an NT 5.0 technical workshop here will get first crack at the beta.

Executives declined to divulge a final date for shipment of the NT upgrade. Most observers have said NT 5.0 most likely will not ship until the second half of next year, a far cry from initially rosy internal estimates.

Microsoft executives said the process for the second beta should be shorter than the initial test version, which the company rolled out in the early fall of last year. "This is an incredibly important milestone on the way to shipment," said Moshe Dunie, vice president for Microsoft's Windows division.

Windows NT is the operating system that is expected to drive profits at the booming software firm through the new millennium. The operating system is targeted at corporate desktop and server users. The NT 5.0 release is expected to take an ever-increasing share of business away from competitors such as Novell and various companies that sell their own flavors of Unix.

Significant issues remain, however. The second beta will have limited support for different types of PC, laptop, and server configurations due to the large number of possible hardware scenarios. The beta update also will lack a full-fledged implementation of Microsoft's Windows Terminal service--currently a separate product in its NT 4.0 incarnation. Microsoft executives claim the code is complete in the second beta, but it remains in "alpha" or pre-beta form.

Additions to the company's clustering technology will not make it into the second beta and likely won't be seen until a post-5.0 version of the operating system, according to executives.

The company also announced that with delivery of a second beta, Microsoft will dedicate a special "service pack" team to the task of offering updated fixes to NT 4.0 periodically, a task that has slipped due to the company's focus on NT 5.0. "We feel very bad about that," said Dunie. "In hindsight, this is something we should have done earlier."

A fourth service pack for NT 4.0 will be available within 30 to 60 days, according to Microsoft executives.

Service packs are used by Microsoft to deliver bug fixes and technology additions to its operating system. Previous service packs were sometimes fraught with bad code--a second NT 4.0 service pack introduced new bugs to the system.

In light of the increased focus on NT, a portion of the development team from the Windows 98 effort has joined the NT group. The move underscores the ever-fluid structure at the company as well as the importance of the NT 5.0 release, essentially a platform shift that will provide the base code for future versions of all forms of Windows--from the consumer desktop to the high-end multiprocessor system.

"It's a gradual thing," noted Rob Bennett, a Windows product manager. "Obviously, we can't take our eyes off the ball with Windows 98, either."

Delivery of the second NT 5.0 beta arrives amid increasingly skeptical views from well-regarded industry pundits regarding final shipment dates and rollout plans for the operating system upgrade.

One study of 50 Fortune 1,000 information technology managers completed by Forrester Research found that 40 percent found no compelling features in NT 5.0, a figure that outdistanced all other responses.

Microsoft executives noted that efforts to educate technology professionals about the features in the mammoth upgrade have not begun in earnest. "I don't think the value of NT is really understood," said Tanya van Dam, group product manager for Windows NT Server. "I'm sure customers don't really understand it yet."

Consultants also point to the timing of the NT 5.0 release--at or near final preparations for the Year 2000 bug--as a potential road block to mass adoption in the near term. "It's their job to be conservative," countered van Dam. "It's our job to make sure our product won't be a barrier.

"There's going to be an [operating system sales] run rate next year," van Dam continued. "There's going to be a run rate beyond that."

The same Forrester survey did find that by the year 2000, 60 percent of servers within the companies polled will be running Windows NT, up from 16 percent in 1996.

Microsoft recently announced plans to add a third beta release of NT 5.0 to the schedule before final shipment of the operating system.