NT 5.0 delay creates IT uncertainty

This week, when thousands of corporate planners and system integrators attended the NT Deployment Conference in order to learn about the intricacies of deploying Windows NT 5.0, many of them were taught a lesson they hadn't been expecting.They discovered that they wouldn't be getting the Beta 2 as announced and, furthermore, there would be yet another beta round later this quarter before NT 5.0 is delivered.

While this delay will leave a lot of corporate infrastructures in limbo, it puts Microsoft in a pretty precarious position as well. With the beta cycle increased from two to three, it's hard to imagine how NT 5.0 is going to meet its end-of-1998 deadline.

Ironically, when I suggested this nearly a year ago (see "Microsoft maps out a plan to overcome customers' resistance to OS upgrades," (www.infoworld.com/printlinks), I was lambasted by Microsoft and several large corporate customers as a spreader of false information. Well, since that prediction appears to be accurate, let me update it again. Given this latest beta delay and that well over half of the code in NT 5.0 will be brand new, I don't expect to see NT 5.0 until late in the third quarter of 1999. At best. And I don't care what Microsoft's after-the-fact NT 5.0 Q&A says. (See http://www.microsoft.com/presspass/features/6-30jimall.htm.)Of course, all this is happening in sync with Windows 98, the "upgrade" that Microsoft has just spent months convincing corporations they don't want.

Unfortunately for Microsoft, the marketing blitz worked. Many corporations now have no serious plans to move to Win98 and are choosing instead to stick with Windows 95 (or an older platform) until they feel comfortable that NT 5.0 is ready for their environment.

The timing could hardly be worse. Given the demands of the year 2000 and the fact that NT 5.0 is going to require a major infrastructure overhaul, you can be pretty sure the transition to 5.0 is going to extend well into the next millennium. Even if Microsoft goes with a full-court -- um -- an aggressive marketing strategy, it's going to be tough to convince users to upgrade in the 1999 time frame.

Besides, NT 5.0 has all the trappings of a major upgrade. Using great features such as Active Directory and IntelliMirror, corporations will be able to dramatically improve their operations while easing their support challenges. But they have to replan and upgrade their infrastructure first.

Although the press may be focused on the latest incarnation of the Microsoft OS, my experience as a consultant gives me a different perspective. Dataquest estimates that there will still be over 118 million computers running Windows 3.1 at year's end. While some of these copies are probably running in American households, the fact is that most corporations are still making do with older OSes.

Some companies may re-examine their decision to pass over Win 98. Others will look to NT 4.0 as a two-year solution. I would expect that this summer corporations will be hearing a lot less about the future of NT 5.0 and a lot more about the reality of NT 4.0.

After all, the Microsoft stock machine is fueled by growing revenues. The company may have done well with Expedia and Sidewalk, but these services aren't delivering the revenue and margins that products do. Outside of an Office refresh, the OS upgrade cycle is where Microsoft is betting the company.

Meanwhile, while Microsoft marks time, companies may benefit as existing products, such as Novell's NDS, get a chance to gain a foothold in the enterprise. Maybe this threat explains why Microsoft and Novell have gotten cozier recently. Regardless, Novell now has a strong window to get many corporations to standardize on NDS for all their platforms -- NT and beyond.This could create a real challenge for the overall grip of NT 5.0.

What impact will NT 5.0's delay have on you? Are you considering other OS alternatives such as Linux? E-mail me your insights.

(Mark Tebbe is president of Lante Corp., a consulting and integration company in Chicago that serves clients worldwide, including several high-tech companies. Send e-mail to mtebbe@lante.com.)

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