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Microsoft’s decision on Friday to “gut” Longhorn in order to get something—really, anything—out on schedule reminds me of something that Borland founder Philippe Kahn once told me. “Shipping,” he said, “is also a feature.” He didn’t add, though he might have, that ultimately, it’s the most important one.

Late Friday, Microsoft informed press and analysts that it will scale back the feature set for both its Longhorn desktop and server versions in order to hit its delivery dates. A first beta release is due by next year and the final release to come some time in 2006.

Now, Longhorn is certainly not the first piece of software to have its feature set changed in order to ship “on-time” (whatever that means). Certainly, it won’t be the last; that’s an easy promise make. And if we’re being honest, does any operating system ever ship on-time?

In addition, this new plan looks as if we will get more information than we’ve been getting. Everyone, from customers to ISVs, will be better off knowing more about product roadmaps, rather than being kept in the dark, especially for minor things like giant OS revs. Indeed, we would demand that very information from vendors for our internal planning.

Still, we also ought to be grown-up enough to accept that all software is only a work in progress.

Microsoft says it will axe WinFS from both the new Longhorn’s client and server versions. Click here to read more.

Microsoft’s announcement will generate a lot of chuckles in the industry. Everyone likes to see the big guy taken down.

What’s more important is that the change in Longhorn reigns in a tremendously ambitious project. What was looking to be an abrupt change from the old Windows to a new one, now becomes a gradual transition. This will give everyone a chance to get used to Longhorn’s revolutionary features in an evolutionary way. That’s a very good thing.

On the other hand, what isn’t so good is that whatever core “fixes” Longhorn would implement in the way of basic security may take longer to arrive on our desktops and servers. This is troublesome for everyone, from IT shops to grandma.

The scheduling change also means that we will be installing software much more often than we’d like. How many more SP2 experiences should Microsoft customers be expected to endure? Plenty.

According to Microsoft Watch’s Mary Jo Foley, Redmond was “Impaled on the Longhorns of a dilemma.” Read her opinion here.

There’s good and bad news for everyone in Friday’s announcement. For example, the new schedule means that Windows as we know it will continue to live as part of Longhorn. For people who have Windows set the way they want it and are happy, Longhorn’s delay is then either inconsequential or even a benefit, if stability is what you value.

While the delay is good for application compatibility, it’s bad news for folks who believe that today’s Windows can never make computing simple enough to become truly ubiquitous.

Finally, for those of us who looked forward to Longhorn’s new file system and the integration of WinFS, the delay is a real disappointment.

Read a comparison between Sun’s Dynamic File System and WinFS here.

Admitting to a personal foible, Microsoft’s decision gives me a chance to enjoy just one “I told you so.” I may have said privately but never publicly that Microsoft should or would make huge changes to get Longhorn out the door. What I have put on record is that Longhorn adoption would be a prolonged affair, perhaps taking until the end of the decade before its “universally” adopted.

In the past, I based this calculation on how long it took Windows NT to go mainstream, which was the better part of a decade. Now, it looks like Longhorn may dribble out for many more years before becoming “complete.” (Again, whatever that means).

Microsoft’s development team must be having mixed feelings about the news, though many have doubtless helped make the “no-go” decision on key elements of the planned feature set. Their disappointment of not getting the product out the door as hoped must be coupled with some relief that the project will now be broken into more manageable chunks.

The change should take the heat off people who were killing themselves to meet an impossible deadline. Right now would probably be a great time for much of the Longhorn programming team to take a couple of weeks off, realign themselves to the new reality, and get back to work.

Now that I think of it, this Longhorn-inspired vacation sounds like a good idea for the rest of us! There’s nothing like some time in the sun to absorb the news, realign ourselves to the upsides and downsides of the new schedule, and accept that more changes may take place before Longhorn arrives on our desktops. See you on the beach.

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