Issuing an update to XP would represent a significant shift for the software maker, which for months has insisted that it had no plans to create a separate version of Windows before. A company executive confirmed to CNET News.com on Thursday that Microsoft is now discussing a product internally referred to as "Windows XP Reloaded."
Reversing its earlier stance, Microsoft is considering an update to XP dubbed 'Reloaded' that would be issued before Longhorn.
The move could indicate that Microsoft considers the gap between the 2001 introduction of XP and Longhorn, which is now not expected until 2006, to be too long. Some are saying the four-year span has created an opportunity for Linux to make further inroads against Windows.
"Calling it an interim release is overstating the current plan," Sullivan said. "We are exploring ways to add value to Windows XP."
However, Directions on Microsoft analyst Rob Helm said that any new version of Windows is likely to slow Longhorn's arrival.
"There's one Windows team and there's one core group of people (developing it)," Helm said. "If they do plan an interim release, it will have an impact on the schedule. How much will depend on what's in it."
Helm said that Windows XP Reloaded sounds like what he would term an interim release. "To my mind, a service pack with features that has the potential to impact compatibility is an interim release."
Helm did say that one option available to Microsoft is to try to boost some of the surrounding programs that are bundled with Windows while making fewer changes to the core OS. Such a "feature pack" could mean less of a delay.
In addition to adding further question to the already uncertain timing of Longhorn, Helm said Microsoft's constantly changing release schedule makes it harder for customers to plan.
"In the consumer market it's less important, but in the enterprise market, it's really important for Microsoft to provide a roadmap--and not just of major big-bang releases, but also of service packs. Right now that road map is still pretty hazy."
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Executives have said for some time that there was no major release of Windows planned before Longhorn. At the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference in May, Senior Vice President Will Poole said: "Don't expect an interim release."
Poole said at that time that Longhorn would ship in 2005. Microsoft later backed away from that date, saying only that it would ship when it is ready. However, until now, Microsoft has reiterated that no new versions of Windows were planned before Longhorn.
Microsoft had been planning to update to its two specialized versions of Windows--Media Center and Tablet PC--before Longhorn. Those updates, which are now in testing, will include service pack security enhancements and new features.
Delaying Longhorn could further benefit Linux, considered the chief threat to the dominance of Windows, said RedMonk analyst Stephen O'Grady.
Even after all his triumphs,
Bill Gates is still a gambling
man--and his latest bet is on
what he believes will be a radically
new version of Windows.
"With any delay of Longhorn, Linux desktop advocates have potentially gained an extension to the window for getting their respective offerings established within enterprises," O'Grady said. Already, analysts hadthat the long time frame between Windows XP's debut and the arrival of Longhorn represented perhaps the best opportunity for Linux to make headway on the desktop.
"While Longhorn's promise of an overhauled user interface and database/file system blend will undoubtedly set the bar for desktops when it's ultimately released, the longer it's delayed the more time Linux has to get a foothold in the desktop market."
The release of Longhorn is seen as critical for Microsoft, with the company having tied new versions of Office and much of its server software to coincide with the new OS, which Chairman Bill Gates has called the biggest advance since Windows 95.
Sullivan said that the possible release of XP Reloaded does not indicate a delay for Longhorn. Microsoft has not said when that OS will ship, but analysts have said they expect it in late 2005 or 2006.
CNET News.com's Charles
Cooper says the future debut
of a new Windows operating
system won't necessarily
determine the outcome
of the jockeying between
Microsoft, IBM, Sun and BEA.
It is too soon to say if any development resources will be needed for XP Reloaded beyond the current teams working on Windows XP maintenance, he added.
The move comes as Microsoft is looking for ways to ensure that existing Windows XP users upgrade to the more secure Service Pack 2 code base.
"We're very interested in having as many people as possible--new PC buyers and installed base--take advantage of the work we've done in SP 2."News.com's Stephen Shankland contributed to this report.