While details remain scant, analysts and observers say Microsoft is under pressure to ship something before the next major upgrade of Windows, code-named Longhorn, arrives to drive more Windows sales through the equipment maker channel and get more customers to sign up for Software Assurance.
Microsoft recently ended free support for Windows 98 and plans to stop selling Windows 2000 client and server through the channel at the end of March.
Windows XP shipped in 2001. Microsoft, which said last year that it wouldn't ship an interim version before Longhorn, handed out early bits of the next Windows upgrade at its Professional Developers Conference last fall but isn't expecting Longhorn to ship until 2006 at the earliest.
On Friday, Microsoft insisted that it has no current plans to do an interim release of Windows XP, similar to the way the company shipped a second edition of Windows 98 four years ago. But it's clear that channel partners and equipment makers should get ready for a Windows update before Longhorn.
The functionality under discussion will be released sometime after the security-enhanced Windows XP Service Pack 2 is released, currently scheduled for midyear, a Microsoft executive said.
"There are no current plans to do a new version of Windows or a [Windows XP] Second Edition, but we're looking at all of our options," said Greg Sullivan, lead product manager for Windows client, confirming that that Windows XP Reloaded is the working name for the project. "There's an effort under way to look at all work being done on Windows and how we add value and bring that to market. We're discussing all the options. We're trying to get Service Pack 2 in the can."
The company is evaluating how to deliver updates for Tablet PC, Windows Media Center Edition and the next version of Windows Media Player. "Those are among the things being looked at for customers," he said.
One partner briefed on the update said it will integrate all the new security features and fixes in the upcoming service pack and new multimedia features.
"We think it was a good decision given the time frame of the next major release," the partner said. "It will help consumers the most since they can buy XP with all the updates and not have to spend hours updating the current out-of-the-box version. The XP refresh edition will essentially be XP with Service Pack 2 and will also include Windows Media Player 10."
Gartner recently published a report indicating that Longhorn would be delayed until 2007 and predicted that Microsoft would ship an interim version of Windows.
"Microsoft has a track record of being late on major releases," said Gartner VP Mike Silver. "Enterprises need to chart their course, some have Windows 2000 and are trying to skip XP and go directly to Longhorn, but if there is an interim release, they need to know. From a budgeting standpoint, it's a huge issue."
Observers acknowledge that they don't know the specifics of the release and Windows XP Reloaded might end up being a downloadable feature pack or a new package like Windows XP Second Edition. "It's possibly a marketing campaign, like Windows 98 Second Edition," Silver said. "It would be a new load for [original equipment makers] and at retail but for people with XP it could be a download."
He predicted Microsoft would work to integrate in some real-time communications capability, make searching faster and possibly include a wireless feature like Apple's Rendezvous. "These are holes they could fill and Longhorn is two to three years away," Silver said.
Another observer said a Windows refresh would be a windfall for equipment makers and hardware vendors looking to drive an upgrade cycle.
"It's a bundle. They're talking about throwing a bunch of stuff together on top of the product and releasing it as a kit," said Rob Enderle, owner and principal of The Enderle Group. Equipment makers "are looking at Longhorn, but it won't be here for a long time."
Sullivan said Microsoft would provide more detail about Windows XP Reloaded after Service Pack 2 ships. The company has not yet flushed out the details of how the new functionality will be delivered and will inform the channel only when the final decisions are made, he said.