Microsoft makes Windows detour

Software giant shelves consumer-friendly version of Windows NT kernel - preps combined consumer/business version, code-named Whistler

Just a month after consolidating all operating system responsibilities under Group Vice President Jim Allchin, Microsoft has taken a detour on its Windows road map.

Where the company had planned "Neptune," a consumer-oriented version of Windows based on the NT kernel, Microsoft is now readying a combined consumer/business version of the operating system, code-named Whistler. Whistler also supplants Odyssey, referred to by some sources as NT 5.5, which had been slated as the first full-fledged upgrade to Windows 2000.

Now, Microsoft is touting Whistler simply as "the next version of Windows."

The move to consolidate operating systems around the Windows NT kernel is not, by any means, new. Microsoft has been discussing its intention to do so for two to three years, because of the effort and expense required in maintaining two separate code bases, the one for NT and Windows 95/98.

Microsoft officials confirmed the Whistler code name, but would not comment on the features or timing for the next-generation OS. Sources, however, expect many of the user interface refinements and back-end services that were slated for Neptune to appear in Whistler.

With the strategy change, though, Microsoft seems to have forgotten to keep beta testers in the loop.

Despite the fact that the first development release of Neptune shipped last December, "the beta testers haven't been told about Neptune yet," said Nate Mook, Webmaster of the Web site "You'd think that if (Microsoft) was going to cancel it and restructure that they would at least tell beta testers."

Whistler, the next version of Windows, shares the same code name as a Microsoft Research Group project. The research division's Whistler, which stands for Windows Highly Intelligent Stochastic Talker, is a trainable text-to-speech engine that Microsoft at one point had hoped to include in Windows 2000.

Microsoft has made numerous tweaks to its Windows family over the past year. Last spring, after deciding its original design goals were untenable, Microsoft nixed plans to move straight from Windows 98 Second Edition to an NT-kernel-based version of Windows. It added a stutter-step release of Windows, code-named Millennium, to its product mix. Millennium, which is slated to enter Beta 3 within the next couple of weeks, is due to ship by midyear.

At the same time, Microsoft told developers it was working on an NT-kernel-based Consumer Windows release, code-named Neptune, but that it wouldn't hit store shelves until 2001 or 2002.

Microsoft simultaneously was working to clarify its Business Windows strategy. While Microsoft has yet to launch officially its Windows 2000 family, Microsoft developers already have been at work on Windows 2000's successors.

Microsoft's first update to its Windows 2000, code-named Asteroid, has been on the books for some time. Officials with the ActiveWin Windows enthusiast Web site say they hear Microsoft could deliver the Asteroid service release 1 for Windows 2000 by June of this year. Microsoft officials declined to comment on the Asteroid code name or feature set.

Microsoft also has been labouring on its first full-fledged Business Windows update to Windows 2000, which originally was code-named Odyssey, company officials confirm.

But now Whistler supplants Odyssey, in addition to Neptune. Now, Microsoft is looking at Whistler as the merger of Neptune and Odyssey, explains a company spokeswoman, who adds that the single release reflects Microsoft's long-standing goal of consolidating its code bases.

Word of Microsoft's revamp of its Consumer Windows strategy began leaking out on Windows news sites, such as Wugnet's WinInfo, late last week.

Microsoft's move to streamline the number of Windows releases -- and associated marketing messages -- got a boost last December, when the company named Jim Allchin the head of a unified Windows division.

Just a month before Allchin's promotion, Microsoft officials admitted the company was wavering on its message that Windows 2000 would be targeted as business-only, noting that the company was prepping for the possibility that consumers would buy Windows 2000, which is due to launch February 17.

Additional reporting by John G. Spooner, ZDNet News

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