Microsoft’s Bill Gates has pointed to 2006 as the release year for the next-generation of Windows, amusingly code-named Longhorn. He didn’t actually confirm that Longhorn would ship in 2006; he said that industry speculation that the operating system would come out in 2006 is “probably valid speculation”. We’ll call that a definitely maybe… To further muddy matters, Bill said that Microsoft will release an alpha version of Longhorn later this year. He didn’t mention the first beta version (more advanced than an alpha) that Microsoft had previously said it would deliver in 2004, and is now not expected till early 2005.

At its Windows Engineering Hardware Conference last May, Microsoft claimed that it would deliver Longhorn in 2005, but later backed away from that commitment. Company execs have since declined to specify a release year for Longhorn, which Gates calls a “big breakthrough release”. Microsoft showed off a special preview version of the software at its Professional Developers Conference in October 2003. With all these different dates flying around, Gates squirmed that “Longhorn is not a date-driven release”. There are a lot of technological “must haves” for Microsoft’s answer to OS X that could hold back a release if they aren’t completed on time, he admitted.

Confused? You won’t be if you remember the problems Apple had in trying to update its operating system prior to Mac OS X. The name of the project wasn’t as funny as Longhorn, although Copland (pronounced Cope-land) did make Apple look like a joke. The project’s other proposed code-names were maybe more appropriate than it being named after classical composer Aaron Copland. The next-gen Mac OS was nearly called V1 or Maxwell – one a famous bomb, the other something heavy that sunk.

Apple wanted to beat Microsoft to market with a next-generation operating system before Bill’s band shipped Windows 95, so Copland was announced at the same time as the Power Mac launch 10 years ago.

Howevr, it quickly slipped behind schedule, with the project overloaded with tons of proposed features – technological “must haves” in Microsoft speak. Not that the company was holding back on resources – dedicating 500 engineers and a $250 million annual budget to the project. In August 1995, mere weeks before the release of Win 95, Apple’s chief technologist David Nagel promised that Copland “would be in users’ hands by mid-1996”.

Nagel jumped ship to AT&T, and Apple revised the launch-date to 1997. Then CEO Gil Amelio scuppered the original vision by announcing that Copland wouldn’t ship as one gleaming new OS to combat Windows 95, but would instead be released piecemeal as each part was finished. Bits of Copland would be bolted onto January 1997’s System 7.6 and July’s Mac OS 8. Amelio’s chief technology officer Ellen Hancock twisted the knife further when, realizing the project’s many failings, she froze its development exactly a year after Nagel had made his cocky Copland communiqué.

Apple had spent a fortune getting nowhere, and was the laughing stock of the developer community. Alarm bells started clanging. Headless chickens ran a truer course than the desperately flailing Apple. The company began negotiations to buy a fledgling operating system called BeOS from the former president of its Products Division. At the same time, Hancock was considering moving Apple to Sun’s Unix-based Solaris and even Microsoft’s Windows NT!

Apple finally got its act together in December 1996, when it agreed to purchase NeXT Software for $427 million. The biggest bonus of this move was the eventual return of co-founder Steve Jobs to Apple’s helm. But the deadlines kept slipping nonetheless. NeXT’s Unix-based OpenStep operating system had few users but was technologically way ahead of its more successful rivals – as much as five to seven years ahead. Apple’s plan was to keep the current Mac OS for consumers, and develop OpenStep as a new Mac OS for servers – much like Microsoft’s Windows 95 and NT strategy. The NeXT-based OS was code-named Rhapsody, and the last useful parts of Copland were released in OS 8.

A Developer Release of Rhapsody was released in October. In May 1998, Apple announced that the successor to the failed Copland project – now to be called Mac OS X – would ship in the autumn of 1999. By January 2000 the only sign of OS X was Steve’s demo of the newly Aquafied system during his Macworld Expo keynote address. He promised a full commercial release that summer. All we got was a Public Beta version in September. We had to wait till the end of March 2001 for the first full release, and it wasn’t ready for public consumption until that September, with OS X 10.1. In fact, according to Jobs, OS X didn’t fully come of age until the release of 10.2 Jaguar in the middle of 2002 – over eight years after Copland was announced as Apple’s saviour.

In its run-up to OS X, Apple missed more deadlines than the builders of Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia. It had all the hallmarks of a government-backed Millennium project. And yet, in the end, the company struck gold with its next-generation OS. Every cloud has an Aqua lining.

I’m certainly not suggesting that Longhorn will go the same way as Copland, although it would be nice to think that Microsoft’s next-generation operating system really is that wonky. Some analysts suggest even 2006 is an optimistic target. Its ever-changing deadlines spookily mirror Copland’s. Imagine if the company did have to scrap it after all the long, expensive years of development. “Bill blows Longhorn”, the headlines will scream. And maybe Microsoft will have to buy another OS from a plucky but under-fire company to save its bacon. But where would Bill find a company like that..?