March 30, 2005 4:00 AM PST

Longhorn could be tough sell for Microsoft

Longhorn has already survived several major delays, intense scrutiny from the industry and a radical redesign of its features.

But the toughest test for Microsoft's next release of Windows is still to come: Will anyone buy it?

Even though it will be five years after Windows XP's debut, Microsoft could still face a tough sell when it releases Longhorn next year. With past updates, users had clamored for more stability and security, but analysts say people are pretty happy with Windows XP.

"Microsoft for the very first time is going to be faced with the challenge of being the player whose (operating system) is 'good enough'" as is, said Jupiter Research analyst Michael Gartenberg.

The challenge is one Microsoft has tackled for years with its Office software, but it's a relatively new problem for the Windows side of the house.

Microsoft managed to turn the launch of Windows 95 into a major event, with loads of mainstream press and consumer enthusiasm. However, subsequent releases have been considerably more subdued affairs, particularly the launch of Windows XP, which came just a few weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Even with its longest-ever time between OS releases, Gartenberg said, Microsoft will have to work to build demand for Longhorn.

News.context

What's new:
After several months of quiet about Longhorn, Microsoft is expected to start talking soon about the next version of Windows, which is slated to ship next year.

Bottom line:
Microsoft needs to come up with some strong selling points if it wants consumers and businesses to upgrade from Windows XP, an operating system analysts say is widely viewed as "good enough."

More stories on Longhorn

"Microsoft is going to have to find a way to take a page from the Steve Jobs playbook and make an operating system that not only looks interesting, but feels interesting," Gartenberg said.

Longhorn was supposed to achieve the sort of "quantum leap" Microsoft managed with Windows 95. The software maker began talking about Longhorn at a developer conference in the fall of 2003, years before the software would be ready. Microsoft spoke of it as a major advance, to which significant upgrades of other Microsoft software would be tied.

But faced with the prospect of having to further delay the OS, Microsoft decided last year to scale back its key components, and with them, some of Longhorn's ambitions.

The result is that Microsoft is on track to deliver a new version of Windows next year, but it has been unclear about what, exactly, the OS will contain.

"We know pretty much definitively that Longhorn is the next version of the Windows client," Gartenberg said. "Everything else goes downhill from there."

Things should become clearer next month when Microsoft offers an updated preview version of Longhorn at WinHEC, its Windows Hardware Engineering Conference, in Seattle. A more full-featured beta version has been promised by June.

What if you released an OS and no one came?
A lot has changed since Windows XP debuted in 2001. Wireless networking has become much more common, as have devices with

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