Analysts have criticised Microsoft for not providing and sticking to a comprehensive product roadmap, saying it means customers can't plan for the future.
Windows XP users are expecting a security update to the operating system in the form of SP2 during 2004 and a completely new version of Windows -- code-named Longhorn -- some time around 2007; but there have been mixed signals from Redmond about whether there will be another overhaul of XP in the interim period, which has annoyed some analysts and users.
Microsoft executives have said for some time that there was no major release of Windows planned before Longhorn. At the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference last May, senior vice president Will Poole said: "Don't expect an interim release." But last week, Windows lead product manager Greg Sullivan admitted the company has been "discussing" updates that are internally referred to as Windows XP Reloaded.
Microsoft was quick to deny that XP Reloaded was an interim product, saying it is a way of "adding value to Windows XP". The company refused to divulge any information about what kind of features, if any, could be introduced after SP2 and before Longhorn.
This uncertainty has led to analysts lashing out at the software company for not making it clear to its customers what its plans are so they can prepare in advance.
A statement from two of Gartner's research analysts, Michael Silver and David Smith, asks Microsoft to make clear exactly what new features users can expect during the interim period so they can make informed decisions: "The company should begin discussing the timeline and feature sets immediately, so that enterprises that have been hesitant to introduce Windows XP machines into their Windows 2000 environments can make informed decisions," the analysts' statement said.
James Governor, principal analyst at RedMonk, told ZDNet UK that both users and developers need a supplier that behaves in a predictable, consistent and transparent manner.
"Customers would like to see fundamental changes in terms of regular, metronomic delivery schedules with deadlines and plans," he said. "Mainframe customers are used to a six-months-on, six-months-off schedule -- they are told what they are going to get and they get it," he said.
Governor said that IBM's AS400 and other platforms are going the same way and this is also something that Sun Microsystems is attempting to abide by. "Sun isn't there yet, but it is trying to do the same with its Java enterprise system. Just because it is tough, it doesn't mean it shouldn't be taken on," he said.
Directions on Microsoft analyst Rob Helm agreed that the confusion adds further question to the already uncertain timing of Longhorn. "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 roadmap is still pretty hazy," he said.
In response, a Microsoft spokesman told ZDNet UK that although the company looks forward to "outlining all the details of the plan we have in mind", it does not have anything more to tell its customers at the present time. For those who say Microsoft doesn't have a clear roadmap, the company pointed to the Windows product lifecycle and Service Pack Web sites.
However, neither of the sites contains any information about Longhorn or any updates for Windows XP after SP2, which according to the timeline is due in "mid 2004".
Even this date seemed flexible in October 2003, when a senior Microsoft executive said that Windows XP SP2 would be released in December 2003. Three days later, Microsoft issued a statement saying that only a beta version of the service pack will be available in December, with the full version scheduled to be released mid-2004. "It is too early in the development cycle to provide a more specific timeline for its release," the company said.
SP2 was originally scheduled for release during 2003, but in August the company updated its schedule to indicate that the update had been pushed back.