Perhaps it's just what happens when a bored nation finds itself in the icy grip of winter. Whatever the reason, industry speculation over release dates for current and future versions of Microsoft Windows has reached an intensity normally associated with coverage of Britney Spears' day-to-day trials and tribulations.
Here's the latest: On Thursday, a Microsoft spokesperson confirmed the release of Windows Vista SP1 RC Refresh 2 -- the latest pre-release build of SP1 -- to a group of about 15,000 beta testers, including corporate customers, consumer enthusiasts, software and hardware vendors.
The spokesperson noted that the Vista SP1 Refresh 2 code isn't available for public download, unlike Windows Vista SP1 RC Refresh 1, which Microsoft cast out to the masses earlier this month.
Echoing a well established party line, the spokesperson said Microsoft is still on track to release Vista SP1 to manufacturing sometime in Q1. While many industry watchers have speculated that the actual RTM date is being synchronized with that of Windows Server 2008, the spokesperson offered nothing to support this theory.
"The final release date is based on quality, so we will continue to track customer and partner feedback from the beta program before setting a final date," said the spokesperson.
Some channel partners are confident that Vista SP1 will provide the long awaited spark that accelerates adoption of the oft-criticized OS.
"I'm actually already getting more customers asking about Vista. It really seems like people are putting their toes in the water, and businesses are taking a look at it too," said Todd Swank, director of marketing for system builder and solution provider Nor-Tech, Burnsville, Minn.
Microsoft is also working on a third service pack for Windows XP, which is currently slated for release in the first half of 2008, but in the opinion of some partners, could slip at least a quarter. On Wednesday, Microsoft released Windows XP SP3 RC Refresh 2 to customers via its Connect site, according to the spokesperson.
Steve Bohman, vice president of operations at Columbus Micro Systems, a system builder in Columbus, Ohio, expects XP SP3 to have a more profound impact on the market than Vista SP1.
"I believe XP service pack 3 will extend peoples' usage of Windows XP," said Bohman. "And I don't see Vista SP1 creating a large influx of people switching over or placing new orders."
Finally, although Microsoft has said it plans to ship Windows 7, Vista's successor, sometime in 2010, speculation flared earlier this week that the vendor may be planning to move up the release to sometime in the second half of 2009. Some sources claimed that Microsoft has already shipped an early test version of Windows 7 to an elite strike force of testers.
The appearance of a Windows 7-focused blog earlier this month -- purportedly the work of an anonymous Microsoft employee -- has fueled the fires of an already white-hot rumor mill. Some sources have even postulated that the blog could be a stealth effort by Microsoft's own marketing team to start creating intrigue around Windows 7.
Microsoft partners have expressed interest in Windows 7 because it will reportedly be based on MinWin, a scaled down version of the Windows core that will also serve as the framework for Windows Server and Windows Media Center.
Microsoft, for its part, had this to say about Windows 7: "We are currently in the planning stages for Windows 7 and expect the development to take approximately 3 years since the release of Windows Vista. The specific release date will be determined once the company meets its quality bar for release," said the spokesperson.