“Whistler” Beta on the Web?

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Event Summary

[3/23/00] For the second time in approximately a month, a senior Microsoft executive has publicly reversed himself, or been reversed by HQ, "before the ink was dry". In February, it was Chief Software Architect Bill Gates. (Refer to TEC News Analysis "Microsoft says: Pay No Attention to the Man Behind the Glasses" for the earlier instance.) This time, it was Jim Allchin, the vice president of Microsoft's Platforms Group.

Less than a week earlier, Allchin denied that source code for "Whistler", the future consumer-focused version of Windows, had appeared on the Internet at the "Active Windows" website (http://www.activewin.com). Whoops! Now he says it really is/was on the Internet, and MS is investigating the incident to see how the code got to Active Windows in the first place.

Market Impact

The immediate impact to the marketplace is minimal. What is more interesting is trying to determine how Whistler ended up on the 'Net in the first place.

We see four possibilities at present:

  1. "Piracy" by a current/former Microsoft employee

    We believe this is the likeliest scenario. We expect there just may be someone, somewhere (now or formerly) inside of MS who may be just a teensy bit less loyal to the corporation than Messrs. Allchin, Gates, Ballmer, et al. As surveys have shown over the years, computer sabotage has been (until recently) more likely to come from inside a company than outside. Recent DDOS attacks have changed the rules of the game a little, of course. (60% probability)

  2. Screw-up by someone at Microsoft

    This is the type of thing happens to political campaigns - someone faxes a key document to a reporter, instead of their remote campaign office. Although it is interesting to speculate on how such an occurrence might take place, we think this is the least likely scenario. (10% probability)

  3. Piracy by an outsider (excluding ex-Microsofties)

    We consider this to be the next-least likely scenario. Although Windows is not noted for its security features, we believe the hurdles one would have to surmount to do this undetected are pretty high. (15% probability)

  4. Planned action by Microsoft

    Conspiracy theorists love this scenario. Instead of pulling the pre-announce routine (e.g., Windows NT 5.0 was once expected to ship in 1998), this is a more subtle tactic. By "accidentally" allowing the source to be available on the 'Net,' the general public can say, "Wow, looks like Whistler is almost ready to go, maybe they're shipping early, etc. etc." While we don't really think Microsoft has stooped to that level, we understand why people might think that way. (15% probability)

If this was in fact a ploy by MS, some early effects (delay/suppression of OS buying decisions) will be felt, but these will not be significant. The real impact of Whistler will not be felt until 2001. At that point, the convergence of the NT and Win 9x kernels will result in consolidation of Microsoft's OS structure/offerings, and will provide a blueprint for how Microsoft's OS fortunes will proceed in the ensuing years. Of course, the DOJ antitrust trial is still not finished - the outcome of a ruling or settlement may change the playing field enough that the effect of Whistler's introduction will be decreased significantly.

User Recommendations

For the general situation of Microsoft's series of 180-degree turns, the best thing a customer can do is sit back, get a bowl of popcorn/chips/pick-your-favorite-snack, and enjoy the show. One wag has even suggested a betting pool on whose statement is reversed next.

For the more serious matter of Whistler/Win2001: the convergence of Windows onto the NT kernel will be a good thing for users. Although the NT kernel is not without faults, it is far more robust than the Win 9x kernel, and lack of robustness is one of the key complaints about Windows. The big caveat is Microsoft's tendency to either delay schedules, or de-feature the OS to remain on schedule, or both. Windows 2000 was a prime example of this. We think it prudent for customers to expect that Whistler will not be delivered when "everyone" is assuming it will be delivered. Customers should take this into account when scheduling OS purchasing/upgrade decisions.

There is insufficient detail regarding planned features to determine if upgrading to Whistler will be more like Windows 98 (mild feature change, mild impact) or like Windows 2000 (major feature change, major impact). Until further details are available, we think it prudent for customers not committed to the "latest Windows version no matter what" to proceed cautiously.

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