I don't want to be a party pooper on the eve of the Windows 7 consumer launch, but a new client operating system -- graphically pleasing and decently performing though it may be -- is about as relevant to the future of computing as a reengineered internal-combustion engine would be to the future of the automobile. As in, nice, but no cigar.
Which may be why, amid all the public hoopla, Microsoft is quietly putting many more chips than most folks realize behind its cloud-computing strategy.
I've long believed that Windows 7 will be the last great client operating system. Its success is assured not because there's any crying need for a new OS, per se, but rather because Windows XP has essentially outlived the hardware platform on which it was designed to run, particularly as regards today's heftier requirements for non-core features such as security and data-access control. (I know; you're thinking that these features aren't non-core to you.)
There's also the operational truth that many enterprises skipped the last natural upgrade cycle when they opted not to adopt Vista. Mostly, in a non-deterministic sense, it's just time for an upgrade.
Moving forward, though, it's pretty clear that the normal, stepwise progression of hardware, applications, and networking technology which made regular OS upgrades an imperative in the past has itself become a thing of the past.
Today, people are wondering less what a future Windows 8 will look like than they are about how they're going to wrestle the increasingly long laundry list of technologies -- most of them emerging technologies -- at their disposal into a manageable implementation plan. Why should this be so difficult? Most simply put, because the ones that are easy ain't cheap, and the cheap ones ain't so easy (or, more precisely, as predictable and controllable).
Even as I write this, this perfect storm of IT trends is altering the imaginary requirements document according to which new OSes are architected. A short list of the stuff we're talking about includes:
Add to this the cost-cutting imperatives of the recession, and I think this list amounts to a new requirements foundation, which argues not for a traditional OS, but for some kind of application-cloud-virtualization management engine.
Interestingly enough, one can make a strong argument that this is exactly what Microsoft is mulling over, in its march to field cloud services such as Windows Azure and Windows Live, and in its future OS research.
As InformationWeek Editor-at-Large Mary Hayes Weier noted in her insightful piece, The Conversation With Gates And Ballmer That Sparked Microsoft's Cloud Strategy,: "Microsoft seems a lot more committed to cloud computing these days, following a year or two of vague references to a software and services model."
She quotes Microsoft vice president of online Ron Markezich as saying that the company has been preparing for the shift to cloud for five years. However, he also caveats that statement by adding that Microsoft sees cloud as an evolutionary model and that few customers with "legacy systems will move 100 percent to the cloud."