Microsoft promises Windows XP on 25 October

Microsoft is known for missing planned launch dates, but the company is utterly committed to hitting this one, said Jim Allchin, vice president of Microsoft's platforms group. "We're going to blow out this holiday season," he pledged in a conference call Tuesday.

The newest version of Microsoft's desktop operating system -- the XP standing for "experience" -- is the next generation of the Windows 2000 line. Windows XP will offer voice, video and application sharing over the Internet, Microsoft spokesman Nick McGrath said in an interview prior to the conference call.

The system focuses on enabling "things people really want to do today with their PCs," Allchin said, such as managing digital music, photos and videos, placing phone calls, connecting multiple PCs in a home network and more easily switching among multiple user configurations on the same computer. Windows XP also allows users to turn control of their PC over to a remote technician for troubleshooting.

Windows XP will be available on new PCs and as a full or upgrade version at retail locations, in two editions: Windows XP Home Edition and Windows XP Professional Edition, McGrath said. The Professional Edition will be appropriate for businesses of all sizes, McGrath added. Microsoft is currently not disclosing any pricing details for either the Home or Professional editions, Allchin said.

A number of different OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturers) will be offering Windows XP, including Compaq, Dell, Gateway and Hewlett-Packard, among others, McGrath said. Those OEMs currently have copies of Windows XP for testing, and will receive final copies "much, much earlier" than 25 October, Allchin said. He declined to name an exact date for OEM shipping.

Microsoft current has a beta 2 version of Windows XP making the testing rounds. The company is not planning a third beta version, Allchin said, although it does intend to distribute some additional updates for final testing. In June, Microsoft will distribute to testers the first release candidate version of Windows XP Professional; a second release candidate version will follow in July. A "candidate" version is a step beyond beta.

PCs released prior to late 1999 may have trouble with upgrading to Windows XP, Allchin said. He did not provide any concrete details of known compatibility issues, and noted that older machines may accept the system without any problems, but said Microsoft isn't focusing on optimising Windows XP for systems sold earlier than the 1999 holiday season. Older applications should be compatible with Windows XP, he said, although certain MS-DOS (Disk Operating System) applications conflict with the new system.

Compatibility with popular older applications will be a key factor in Windows XP's success, predicts Gartner Group Inc. analyst Michael Silver. For businesses, he sees Windows XP as a minor and optional upgrade from Windows 2000. "I think the biggest thrust is going to be toward consumers," he said. "I think a lot of consumers are frustrated with the flakiness of Windows 9x. Windows XP should be a lot more stable for them."

Microsoft also sees Windows XP as an upgrade more important for Windows 9x users than for those on Windows 2000, Allchin said. Queried about whether businesses just now adopting Windows 2000 should continue migrating to that system or wait for Windows XP, Allchin said that those rolling out Windows 2000 "have a great system," and should stick with that until they add new machines. "If someone is on Windows 95 or 98, they need to get off of it," he said.

The official release date of the operating system, long the subject of speculation within the industry, means Windows XP will hit the market in time for the crucial holiday shopping season. It will miss the lucrative back-to-school shopping timeframe, however, a timing decision some retailers and analysts questioned. Allchin brushed off such concerns, emphasising Microsoft's plans to capture holiday shopping dollars. "It would have been nice to make the back-to-school timeframe for (OEM) pre-loading, but quality came first." he said. "We will see massive shipments for the holiday season."

Allchin also dismissed worries about the overlapping release schedules of Windows XP and Microsoft's eagerly awaited X-Box gaming console, also scheduled to debut next fall. He said that launch dates for the two products "won't be on top of each other," and that Microsoft is unconcerned about pushing both products simultaneously. "X marks the spot for this holiday season, whether you're into game consoles or into PCs," he said.

Microsoft's other hotly anticipated product, Office XP, will be officially released worldwide release on 31 May.

The company is planning a marketing blitz that it calls the most expensive Windows campaign in Microsoft's history. Microsoft said that in Windows XP's first four months of availability, the company will spend twice as much on advertising as it spent on Windows 95's splashy debut. Allchin declined to disclose a dollar figure, but said the campaign will cost "hundreds of millions."

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