Microsoft's OS developers need to be more sure-handed than ever these days, given the number of balls they've got in the air.In addition to ongoing support for the most current version of the Windows operating system, Vista, the company is now working on no less than three other OS's, according to official Microsoft statements and Internet records.
The software maker's ability to successfully keep it all in the air, without dropping anything, could go a long way toward helping it recover from the publicity nightmare that is Windows Vista, which has been shunned by most corporate IT managers and mocked as slow and stodgy in Apple's consumer ads.
Up next for Microsoft is Windows 7. The company has said little about Vista's most immediate successor, other than that it plans to ship it sometime in 2010. It has revealed that Windows 7 shares much of Vista's code base, meaning that applications that don't run properly on Vista won't likely perform well on 7, either.
Microsoft's message: Don't let compatibility problems keep you from upgrading from XP to Vista, because you'll inevitably have to deal with those issues anyway when Windows 7 rolls around.
Beyond Windows 7, Microsoft's operating system roadmap gets murkier.
It's possible that, having learned from the Vista fiasco that what appeals to consumers may be less attractive to tech pros, the company is planning to split its operating system business into commercial and consumer segments, producing separate products with vastly different architectures.
That would help explain Midori, the existence of which Microsoft confirmed to InformationWeek in an e-mail Wednesday.
Officially, Microsoft won't say anything other than that Midori is "an incubation project," but company research documents hint that it's being built to solve problems that are beyond the scope of Windows -- a so-called fat OS that was first developed before the Internet came into widespread use and most PCs had only a single processor.
It's possible Midori is being designed for use in virtualized, cloud computing scenarios, where business applications reside on centralized servers and are accessed through the Web. It appears that Microsoft researchers also are building the OS with an eye to achieving better performance on multicore PCs and servers. To date, developers have had little success creating software that's able to fully harness the power of computers that feature two or more cores on a single chip.
But, since consumers aren't likely to be running cloud computing farms in their living rooms anytime soon, Microsoft does not appear to be ready to abandon its Windows franchise after the release of Windows 7 in 2010.
A blogger at UX Evangelist discovered this week that the company already is in the planning stages for Windows 8. Even though the OS has no public release date, computer industry job boards show that Microsoft is hiring people to work on the project.
A bifurcation of Microsoft's OS business into consumer and business groups would be consistent with changes the company made earlier this month to the internal group that houses Windows. With the departure of Kevin Johnson, who headed up both Windows and Microsoft's Internet efforts, the company has decided to split Internet and OS development into two separate groups that will report directly to CEO Steve Ballmer.
The Internet business, home to MSN and Windows Live, is highly marketing-driven, so putting the OS folks into their own unit might free them from constant demands for more bells and whistles, while allowing them to focus on creating separate systems for consumer PCs (Windows 7 and 8) and for corporate IT infrastructures (Midori?).
Obviously, I'm speculating a bit here. And getting back to my original metaphor, much of this is still probably up in the air -- even inside Redmond. What's clear, however, is that Microsoft is searching for new ways to keep both its consumer and business customers happy, and that if the Vista experience has proven anything, it's that the days of the one-size fits all OS may be over.