Microsoft's new server OS hits paydirt

It's got great features, but don't upgrade unless you need to, says Tom Yager

Windows Server 2008 (WS08) has been doing an excruciatingly slow public striptease for five years. Now that the last patch of linen has been peeled away, we'll have a chance to see what thousands of man-years yields in terms of innovation. WS08 is loaded with Microsoft's good ideas, almost the way commercial Linux is, and this time Microsoft added the ingredient of wide-open, real-time public engagement in the development process. The people doing the talking in Microsoft's blogs are high-ranking types who could easily opt out of talking to the public. In a way, WS08 is a product of the collaboration between the world's largest software company and the people who use the products they make. It's pretty cool, and it goes a long way towards repairing Microsoft's reputation as an opaque, insular entity. The idea of having someone who says "I'll get back to you" actually get back to you about bug reports and feature requests is sort of a mind-blower. Microsoft's take on community isn't perfect; not all who raise their hands are called upon. That's not possible for people whose primary job functions involve getting things done, and I wonder how Microsoft manages triage on the mountain of feedback every new public beta must produce. I have to hand it to Redmond: Windows Server 2008 gives the people what they want, albeit spread across several products. There are only so many eggs that one basket can hold, and there is more money to be made selling one egg at a time. There's nothing wrong with that business model, and it helps defray the cost of inserting buyers into the product development cycle. I think that Windows Server, once you build the essential Windows Server System components around it, is grossly overpriced. WS08's path to release is a model worthy of emulation, but it seems that Microsoft didn't get around to asking buyers what they'd like to pay for it. When it comes time for buyers to write the check for WS08, the adage "be careful what you wish for" may spring to mind. There is one way that IT can keep Microsoft, or any vendor, from reaching into their pockets: Don't buy it. Assuming that you don't work for Microsoft or its PR network, if I asked you to name five WS08 features that have you salivating at the prospect of upgrading your Windows Server 2003 servers, I think you'd have to hit Microsoft's website to come up with your answers. Only the numbers will tell the tale, but despite WS08's certificate of community, it may be a victim of the Vista Effect. Vista differs from WS08 in that it is the product of Microsoft's bad old "we'll let you know what you want" paradigm of software design. There is much goodness baked into Vista, but I'd much rather see Vista's yummiest bits back-ported to Windows XP. You see, Windows XP is everything I need in a Windows client OS. Ask me what I want and I might give you a list that puts Santa's naughty and nice scroll to shame. I like to play and discover, and Vista has a few of the kind of gems that can make a video game with an explore-and-gather theme so engrossing. But I have to say that Windows doesn't lend itself to this. Whether Microsoft was aping Apple, whose OS X reveals something new and relevant every time you sit down with it, Vista showed that Microsoft is no better at making OS presentation and management layers enjoyable to use. I'm not motivated to hunt down Vista's wonders. Move files around? Check. Connect to the internet? Check. Launch apps? Check. That's what I need and expect from a Windows client OS, and based on that, Windows clients hit their apex with Windows 2000 Professional. Microsoft cursed Vista by trying to move the goalposts based on internal discussion about what users would want desperately if only they knew they could have it. WS08 tries to move the goalposts, too, but Microsoft had external discussions that yielded the public's take on its fondest desires. When asked what it wants, the market is not shy about demanding the whole world and a Dove Bar. But even though WS08 is everything buyers asked for, at the end of the day there has to be a defensible reason to reach deeply into one's pockets to upgrade to a Windows server OS that will likely be tasked to do only what Windows Server 2003 systems do now. IT will download the trialware of WS08 in record numbers. Reviews will range from good to ecstatic. In the end, if the paid-off car you're driving now is still a nice ride, you'd be foolish to take on new payments. At some point, Microsoft will force the issue by declaring the end-of-life on Windows Server 2003, but that's a story for another day.

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