Microsoft restates consumer OS plans

Trying to clear up confusion caused by a "miscommunication" within the company, Microsoft said today it has no firm plans to release a new consumer operating system based on the current Windows 98 kernel.

The software giant also retracted remarks made by a spokesman that a consumer operating system based on the Windows NT kernel is still two to three years away. Indeed, one analyst predicted that a "Consumer NT" could arrive as early as the third quarter next year.

Microsoft was responding to press reports which quoted a spokesman with its public relations firm saying that Microsoft will release one or more minor upgrades to its desktop operating system based on the Windows 9x kernel. A kernel lies at the heart of an OS and helps define its features and performance capabilities.

Previously, Microsoft has said it would jump straight to the Windows NT kernel for its next consumer operating system release. The company hasn't said yet when that will be, although it has indicated that it will be well after when Windows 2000 ships. Windows 2000 was formerly known as NT 5.0.

Today, a Microsoft official tried to set the record straight by saying that the company doesn't know yet if it will offer an upgraded operating system based on the 9x kernel, or when such an upgrade might arrive.

"At this point, we have not decided on a firm plan either way," said Rob Bennett, group product manager for Windows. The company may release an upgraded OS based on the kernel in Windows 98, or it may jump straight to the next "major upgrade," which would be based on Windows NT, Bennett said.

The spokesman from Waggener-Edstrom -- Microsoft's PR agency -- quoted by other news outlets today was "misinformed," Bennett said. "He had some misinformation, some bad data, and unfortunately that got quoted."

For end-users, Microsoft's plans are important because an operating system upgrade often includes performance enhancements, and may also require them to upgrade applications and peripherals. NT offers the promise of a much more stable operating system for consumers, one that should be able to "take a licking and keep on ticking," according to Chris Le Tocq, director of software consulting at Dataquest.

"Although Windows 98 has some good features in it, from a robustness standpoint -- and what that means is less consumer frustration -- NT is a better way to go," Le Tocq said.

Meanwhile, Microsoft, which already has suffered embarrassment over repeated delays in the delivery of Windows 2000, doesn't need any added uncertainty over what its next consumer OS is going to be.

Bennett said today that Microsoft's plans are not unclear. At the end of this year, Microsoft plans to release Windows 2000, he said. As reported, Windows 2000 will come in two editions: Windows 2000 Professional, aimed at high performance desktops in the enterprise arena, and Windows 2000 Server, which will come in several different flavours aimed a variety of server markets.

In the meantime, for consumers, Microsoft is currently beta testing a "service pack" for Windows 98 which will pull together various spot upgrades to Windows 98, such as improved year 2000 support and security features, that have appeared since that OS was released last year. The service pack is expected by mid-year.

Le Tocq said there may have been some confusion within Microsoft as to what constitutes "a new release." Besides the service pack for users, Microsoft is also preparing a corresponding OEM (original equipment manufacturer) Service Release or OSR which PC makers will install on Windows 98 PCs, Le Tocq said.

"Does that get classed as a new release from a technical standpoint? Yes. From a user standpoint? No," he said.

Either way, Microsoft is clear that its next "major" consumer desktop operating system upgrade will be based on the Windows NT kernel, Microsoft's Bennett said. "We're moving to the NT kernel as quickly as we can on the consumer product," he said, although he would offer no clue as to when that might be released.

Dataquest's Le Tocq said he thinks the NT-based consumer OS will appear within six months of Windows 2000. Windows 2000 is expected to appear by the end of the year, although Le Tocq said he wouldn't be surprised if it slipped to the first or second quarter of next year.

After that, "it's not rocket science to port NT to the consumer desktop," he said.

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