Microsoft is tol release the first beta of BizTalk Server 2006 in the next two weeks. But the company has been dogged with confusion as to when the actual launch date of the product will be.

Microsoft had targeted summer 2005 as the time frame for the launch, and Steven Martin, group product manager for the business process and integration division, confirmed that the beta would be ready within two weeks.

However, although some published reports have said BizTalk Server 2006 would ship upon its scheduled launch on 7 November, Martin said it would not be available until the first quarter of 2006.

Microsoft is launching BizTalk Server 2006 alongside SQL Server 2005 and Visual Studio 2005, both of which are expected to be ready for shipment at the San Francisco launch.

Though Microsoft never said it would actually ship BizTalk at the same time as the new versions of SQL Server and Visual Studio, launching it along with other products that will be available immediately caused some confusion, said one Microsoft partner and regional director.

"You’re tagging BizTalk on to that, and if you look at the press, half of the articles out there said [Microsoft] is shipping it in November,” said Andrew Brust, chief of new technology for consulting company Citigate Hudson. “If that’s not true, at the very least it’s confusing, and perhaps it’s also a bit misleading.”

To further muddy the issue, Microsoft Chief Executive Officer Steve Ballmer seems to have missed the memo about BizTalk's expected ship date. During his keynote address Sunday at the Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference in Minneapolis, Ballmer listed BizTalk Server 2006 as one of the products Microsoft will ship this year.

Though the full release itself will not ship at the 7 November launch, Microsoft will make available beta 2 of BizTalk Server 2006 at that time, Martin said.

With BizTalk Server 2006, Microsoft plans to provide support for SQL Server 2005, Visual Studio 2005 and Virtual Server 2005. Additionally, there will be a BizTalk Server 2006 for systems with x86 processors with 64-bit extensions, as well as increased integration with SharePoint Services.

Brust said BizTalk also will include a new workflow engine that Microsoft probably will leverage across other infrastructure software. Microsoft also plans to simplify deployment and installation of the product, he said. "Setting up BizTalk Server is not the easiest thing in the world," Brust said.

Martin confirmed that the BizTalk group is working on a set of workflow technologies called Windows Workflow Services, but he would not say whether those services will be available in BizTalk Server 2006. He also confirmed that Microsoft will make deployment of BizTalk applications "quite a bit easier" with the next release.

Microsoft is notorious for constantly revising the launch and ship dates of its products and for setting unclear time frames for when products will actually be available. For example, the next version of the Windows desktop operating system, code-named Longhorn, originally was expected to be available this year but now is not expected to ship until the fourth quarter of 2006.