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New Windows Server, XP versions roll

Microsoft hands computer makers the code for Windows Server 2003 and Windows XP 64-bit Edition Version 2003, a milestone in the company's assault on the business market.

Microsoft announced Friday that it had released two high-end operating systems to computer manufacturers.

Windows Server 2003 is Microsoft's high-end business operating system, which the company hopes will extend its reach into the enterprise. Windows XP 64-bit Edition Version 2003 is designed for workstations running Intel's Itanium 2 processors.

The release of Windows XP 64 could spur the adoption of Itanium-based workstations, which have not sold as well as expected, say analysts. Dell Computer released a workstation containing the original Itanium chip in 2001, but then quietly pulled it off the market. Although Dell hasn't come out with Itanium 2 computers yet, company executives said the direct PC maker will adopt the chip. Currently, Hewlett-Packard is the only major computer manufacturer offering Itanium 2 workstations.

Microsoft on Friday also signed off on final code for SQL Server 2000 Enterprise Edition, which, like the new version of Windows XP, handles 64-bit instructions and is designed for Itanium 2 processors.

Release to manufacturing, or "RTM," of the new high-end products clears the way for manufacturers to begin selling computers with the several pieces of software. Windows Server 2003 doesn't officially launch until April 24, but computer makers would be free to sell systems ahead of the official release, according to Microsoft. SQL Server 2000 Enterprise Edition will launch at the same event, along with a new version of Visual Studio .Net.

At least one server manufacturer expects to be ready before the official launch date. Unisys said it will start shipping Windows Server 2003 systems immediately.

But other manufacturers aren't interested in taking Microsoft up on that offer. Dell plans to wait to announce availability until April 24, a company representative said Friday. Dell plans to offer Windows Server 2003 across the company's entire line of PowerEdge servers, the representative said.

IBM also plans to wait until the official launch date. The company will release two-, four- and eight-processor systems running Windows Server 2003 on April 24, a company representative said Friday. But Big Blue doesn't plan on releasing 16-processor servers running the software until June.

MPC Computers (formerly MicronPC) doesn't plan to start offering the software, which will be available across the company's entire NetFrame server line, until after the official launch date. "We're still waiting on qualifying the product," a representative said. "There will be a pretty significant lead time."

Gateway also is waiting for April 24 to put Windows Server 2003 on its machines, including two high-density servers set for their own launch a week from Monday.

The companies wouldn't further discuss the reasons for the hesitation, but some computer manufacturers have faulted Microsoft for taking so long to finish up Windows Server 2003 code. At one point the company planned to release finished--or gold--code on March 12, but twice pushed back the date because of last-minute tweaking.

Typically computer makers need at least six weeks to test a new operating system. In the case of server software used by businesses, more time is usually needed. For example, MPC plans on eight weeks of testing.

The long road
In a conference call with the media Friday morning, a giddy Bill Veghte, corporate vice president of Microsoft's Windows Server division, announced: "Today Windows Server 2003 was released to manufacturing. It is done."

But the product has been a long time coming. From conception to release of final code, Windows Server 2003 has seen four different names and four release dates. In October 2000, Microsoft said the product would ship in the second half of 2001. But in April 2001, it pushed back delivery of the product to early 2002. In March 2002, the software giant again delayed delivery until the second half of the year. In November, the company delayed delivery for a third time, setting an April launch date.

Microsoft's increased emphasis on security, set off by a January 2001 memo from Chairman Bill Gates, contributed to the product delays.

Veghte said that Windows Server 2003 was "designed and built with enhanced security as a top priority." Microsoft spent more than $200 million in research and development on security, he added.

Microsoft on Friday spoke of massive amount of interest in Windows Server 2003. Veghte described a public beta, or test, program involving the software as "the most significant customer preview program Microsoft has ever had." About 561,000 people signed up for the software, more than double the preview for Windows XP. Veghte did not say whether that figure overlapped with Office 2003 Beta 2. The 15-CD Office 2003 kit includes the Windows Server 2003 beta.

With Friday's release to manufacturers, Windows Server 2003 extends to seven different versions. The main ones are Datacenter, for top-end machines with dozens of processors and high reliability requirements; Enterprise Server, for more mainstream multiprocessor servers; Standard Server, for low-end servers; and a new Web Server for low-end machines used to send Web pages to Internet browsers. Microsoft plans to release a fifth product, Windows Small Business Server 2003, in the third quarter. Also available: 64-bit versions of Datacenter and Enterprise versions for Itanium processors.

As Microsoft prepares for the launch event, work continues on an array of Windows Server 2003 components that are shipping late. They include: Greenwich, Microsoft's new business-class instant messaging technology; Group Policy Management Console; collaboration tool Windows Team Services; security enhancement Windows Rights Management Services (RMS); and Windows Systems Resource Manager (WSRM), among others.

Windows Team Services and Group Policy Management Console are expected to be among the first pieces to arrive. On Friday, Veghte said to expect the late components to ship "60 to 120 days after this milestone," referring to the Windows Server 2003 release to manufacturers.

During the media conference call, Veghte dodged questions about Microsoft's next major operating system releases--Longhorn, the successor to Windows XP, and Windows Server 2003 follow-up Blackcomb.

"We're starting to flesh out what the next releases look like," Veghte said, deferring any other comments until after a planned Friday celebration regarding the release to manufacturers.

In the meantime, work continues on the next service pack, or collection of bug fixes, for Windows XP. On Thursday, a new build of Windows XP Service Pack 2 leaked out of Microsoft. Another, earlier version leaked out Feb. 28.

CNET's Michael Kanellos contributed to this report.