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WinXP delayed? How it could slip beyond October

It's just too easy for dumb users to break, right now

Windows XP may or may not have been delayed until October; it depends how you look at it. According to an internal schedule obtained by Robert Stein of Activewin, XP is currently intended to be in the shops in October. Apparently pouncing on the same schedule, Rob Enderle of Giga Information Group interpreted this as two months slippage from the August date he'd earlier been given to understand.

The gag is that nobody actually told Enderle it would be August, and Microsoft has never said anything publicly other than 'second half' 2001. This alibi allows Redmond and its sundry PR operations to continue peddling the ludicrous story that it's on time right up until midnight on 31st December, which you'll recall is pretty much what happened with Win2k.

The truth, however, is that there has been some slippage. It's not vitally important yet, but it could become so if RTM (Release to Manufacture) goes any further back than the 25th July date Activewin has. After RTM the PC companies need around eight weeks to get the software onto their machines, and if these machines aren't starting to hit the stores from about October, they and Microsoft are going to lose sales.

Enderle, who seems to have copped a fair bit of flak from MS over his shout of 'late!', says he was basing his earlier August estimate on hints from Microsoft and conversations with various companies in the business. Which is actually perfectly reasonable, because Microsoft can't possibly do business with PC companies on the basis that 'we'll ship you gold code sometime between 1st June and 31st December, and we're not telling you when.' Well, not yet it can't, anyway.

The August date does fit in with industry expectations so far, and is also logical from a planning point of view. As we've explained already, the late July RTM leaves virtually no more space for slippage.

Which from Microsoft's point of view will be cool, if they can make it. Enderle originally said the delay (which we'll call it, for the sake of brevity) was caused by a series of compatibility issues. He doesn't seem to have specified what they were/are, but from where we're sitting the compatibility issues with WinXP don't seem to be wildly out of line with the compatibility issues we all run into whenever Redmond builds new software.

The Register however has a few suggestions for serious issues that could make the wheels fall off.

The software itself is stable, but here's the gag - it's far too easy to break, and here's our example for the day. Over the weekend we contrived to make our CD drives disappear for quite some while by the simple expedient of installing an HP CD burner software suite (which includes the dreaded DirectCD). We'll own this was a dumb thing to do, but it's the sort of dumb thing dumb users are going to do, and the sort of thing WinXP is aimed to shield them from. It was quite tricky, incidentally, to get the drives back, and even then the Microsoft CD burning capability seemed to remain in some kind of fruitless low-key war with DirectCD.

We've spotted several other comparable effects which can easily be achieved by naughtily installing stuff Microsoft doesn't approve of. Maybe it tells you there are issues to do with the software in the release notes, maybe also when you install the driver it tells you it hasn't been signed. So on the one hand it's your fault, but on the other your machine is still an unstable pile of plop of the 'vape and reinstall' variety we know so well from Win9x days.

The fixes for this are various. You can just not install stuff Microsoft doesn't approve of, in which case your system is far less likely to break, and as an added bonus some of your hardware might not work. (For example, Microsoft is happy about the generic driver for our Olitec modem, but the modem still doesn't work; you need to install the unsigned Olitec driver.) Blanket bans on unsigned drivers will no doubt play in the corporate market, so that can be deemed a fix - they'll only use hardware that comes with signed drivers, they'll probably be pretty happy with the regime, but they're not the hard bit.

Windows XP, remember, is the one that's for the consumer market as well, and consumers are only going to opt into the regime if there are good quality signed drivers available for all of their hardware. Otherwise they'll used unsigned ones. At the moment the drivers that ship with the XP beta are by no means always the best, and in some cases they're non-existent. So you end up using Win2k drivers, sometimes with unpleasant results.

Nor does the alleged rollback capability necessarily get you out of this. We couldn't roll back our CD drivers, for example, because they hadn't actually rolled forward - poison registry problem.

Given that it's unlikely Microsoft can make rollback absolutely infallible, it needs widespread availability of good quality, thoroughly-tested, signed drivers, and it also needs to make WinXP a hell of a lot less vulnerable to software Exocets misfired by dumb users like me. Maybe it can do this in the time available, maybe it can't. But currently the intended vast pile of drivers intended to be located at Windows Update looks strangely empty, and doesn't seem to have got much beyond Bill Gates' Brainware status.

One other problem that'll be serious if Microsoft can't fix it before RTM. The vaunted Media Player currently seems largely uncompelling, and in the integration stakes is probably about at Internet Explorer 2.0 level, feature-wise. In order to make the digital music world safe for WMA format, Media Player has to be obviously better than alternatives, but it isn't. It does come with some stupid propaganda about MP3 being poorer quality, but that's been hard-wired (or more accurately, hard-notwired) into Media Player. Go get Musicmatch or similar instead.

Similarly, in order for Microsoft to establish control of the burner, and hence act as gatekeeper on copyright infringements, its burning software has to be far better than the alternatives. But this isn't true either. As Media Player and related items are supposed to be key sales points for XP, they have to be better than the opposition. And there's not a lot of time to get to, say, IE 4.0 quality levels, much less IE 5.0. ®

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