Still waiting for 2000

Slipping beta delivery dates are a bad sign. But other evidence is mounting that Microsoft Corp.

Slipping beta delivery dates are a bad sign. But other evidence is mounting that Microsoft Corp. has its hands full with Windows 2000. The latest indication of trouble: The vendor is backing off on deployment requirements for companies in its Windows 2000 Rapid Deployment Program (RDP), which to date has pushed participants to use Windows 2000 in production environments prior to the operating system's general release.

Now, sources say Microsoft is freeing participants from what many felt were "onerous" contract requirements. What's more, Microsoft is considering changing the name of the program, to the Joint Development Deployment Program (JDP). The move would seemingly abandon the pretence that anything about Windows 2000 is "rapid." Microsoft declined to comment on the reported changes.

The RDP changes follow Microsoft's recent decision to delay widespread testing of Windows 2000 Beta 3 until April. For those keeping score, the new beta will arrive four months after Microsoft cut Release Candidate 0 (RC0) of Beta 3.

Translation: Microsoft's development team may be experiencing more problems, since a final beta release typically arrives only a few weeks after RC0. Microsoft maintains that Beta 3 is on track, and that the company is simply taking some extra time to polish the code. Nevertheless, RDP participants are concerned. "We don't expect to deploy [Windows 2000] until Q2 next year, at the earliest. I backed off because they backed off. We thought we'd get Beta 3 in Q1 of this year," says Rich Claing, a systems administrator with Pratt & Whitney in East Hartford, Conn. "Instead, we've picked up NT 4.0 Service Pack 4, which has allowed us to put aside our immediate need to upgrade [to Windows 2000]."

Microsoft has said Windows 2000 Professional, Server and Advanced Server are slated to ship in 1999, with the higher-end Datacenter Server following within 60 days-though the company declines to discuss specific ship dates.

Microsoft originally intended to ship Windows 2000 in early 1998, but multiple factors complicated the picture. The U.S. Department of Justice antitrust trial, for one, has sapped the energy, morale and resources of executives and staff alike. Within the next few weeks, two Windows 2000 executive champions, group VP Paul Maritz and senior VP Jim Allchin, will spend extensive time testifying in Washington, D.C., rather than directing Microsoft's OS efforts.

Closer to home, Microsoft replaced 11-year company veteran and Windows development VP Moshe Dunie with Brian Valentine, former development head for Microsoft Exchange Server. While Valentine is intimately familiar with the evolving Active Directory, sources say Dunie's exit in December rocked Microsoft's development and testing teams.

One integrator working with Microsoft in the RDP program characterised Valentine as "charismatic." The integrator, who asked to remain anonymous, said Valentine is "really changing the low morale" among the Windows 2000 team and partners. "His attitude is 'contracts, schmontracts,'" says the integrator. "He has a different philosophy: Either partners should work together or they don't. You don't need contracts to enforce that."

Under the auspices of the RDP program, Microsoft and its certified partners go on-site and assist customers. Microsoft conducts weekly troubleshooting conference calls and provides participants with access to fixes, interim updates and other pertinent information. The vendor selects those participants from its large commercial accounts, which are handled by its Enterprise Customer Unit.

Microsoft declined to provide details on the number of RDP participants or any other aspects of in the program. Sources say Valentine recently briefed RDP participants on expected changes in the soon-to-be-renamed JDP. Microsoft plans to combine its Tier 1 and Tier 2 members, creating a core group of about 20 JDP partners, according to sources.

Breaking down barriers is at least one hopeful sign on the Windows 2000 front. But there is still more work to be done.