Microsoft has confirmed it will introduce an update to Windows Server 2003 that includes add-on feature packs released since the product shipped last April.

Jeff Price, a senior director in the Windows Server product management group, said customers have been looking to Microsoft to make the add-on features, such as SharePoint Services and the Group Policy Management Console, "easy to consume" with a "high level of integration".

Although the feature packs are already designed to be integrated with Windows Server 2003, Price said, Microsoft would still need to release an update to provide administrators with an "integrated management and installation experience" across all of the add-on technologies. "That's effectively what customers are asking for," he said.

Price noted that customers currently pick and choose which features they would like to add to their servers from Microsoft's website, a process that "works pretty well". But Microsoft thinks it can have "even more customer success" by making it all easier to consume, install and manage.

Price said that the proposed update to Windows Server 2003 may also include new technologies, yet to be released. "We will consider the broad range of technologies that are ready at the time we do this update. And based on customer feedback, we'll see what we can put in."

When the new release emerges, customers who purchased Microsoft's Software Assurance plan for their servers will be able to get it as part of their maintenance contracts. Under that plan, customers pay an annual fee of 25 per cent of the licence cost for server software which includes the rights to all upgrades issued during their three-year contract terms.

Price said Microsoft has made no decision about whether there will be a charge for Windows Server customers who haven't purchased Software Assurance. He also failed to give a release date.

Planning can be a tricky exercise for Microsoft customers, since the company has a history of delivering products later than expected and veering from plans it has announced. Most recently, Microsoft shelved plans for a project, code-named Jupiter, that would have integrated its BizTalk Server, Commerce Server and Content Management Server into a single product offering.

The delay in products has also caused tens of thousands of Microsoft customers to debate whether to renew their software maintenance contracts when they have received almost nothing in the past two years.

Before the release of Windows Server 2003, the company's server team told the media there would be no server operating release codenamed Longhorn. Months later, Microsoft executives reversed that position and asserted there will be a Longhorn server operating system release.

After initially saying Longhorn would emerge in late 2005, Microsoft hasn't provided any further definitive update on the product's expected ship date. Neil Charney, director of product management for the Windows group, said recently that Microsoft is targeting a beta release for the end of this year and will re-evaluate the ship date based on the beta feedback.

As the gap between Windows XP's October 2001 launch and Longhorn's ship date grows potentially wider, speculation is mounting about a possible interim release of Windows, even though Microsoft has said it has no such plans. Much of the discussion has centred around the client operating system, under the project name Windows XP Reloaded.

Charney said Windows XP Reloaded is "an informal phrase for internal discussions" that Microsoft is having about how to "add value to the current Windows XP platform". Asked whether it could be considered an interim release, Charney said: "I'd say we're still exploring a variety of options and it's too early to say anything about what it's going to be."

Charney said the company's current focus is getting Service Pack 2 for Windows XP "out the door". Service Pack 2, which features several security improvements, is due in the first half of this year.