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In Depth: The Next Windows After Vista Will Demand Radical Rethinking From Microsoft

Microsoft is at a crossroads, and the operating system that follows Vista will likely mark a serious break from the past. That is, if Microsoft can figure out how to do things differently.
At Microsoft's analyst meeting in July, Mundie said much of the company's research is directed at making software system design simpler and more predictable, bringing programming on par with other engineering disciplines. For that, Ozzie may play a key role. Under Microsoft's traditional development style, groups of programmers work on system elements, then bind components together. Instead, Ozzie prefers to develop the core of a system, then build code on top of it--an approach used by Apple. But Microsoft has an albatross around its neck that Apple doesn't: 850 million PCs that run Windows.

When Apple switched to OS X in 2001, it made a sharp break with backward compatibility. Developers could get their old apps to run on the new system using a special API set called Carbon, which required weeks, even months of programming work. To get the full benefits of OS X, customers had to rewrite their apps using a set of object technologies called Cocoa. Apple put its ISVs under strain again this year, requiring code porting to support the Intel chips in all new Macs.

Microsoft's problem is more complex. Thousands of software programs and hardware devices made by hundreds of companies must interface with Windows, not to mention all the software written by Microsoft's customers. So the solution may be to cordon off those old apps in a virtual machine, something Microsoft had originally proposed doing in Vista. All that old software presents security risks to companies running it, but if Microsoft attempted an Apple-like break with the past, it would endanger a big part of the reason companies buy Windows in the first place. "Microsoft puts far too much weight on the altar of backward compatibility at the risk of truly moving the platform forward," Directions on Microsoft's Cherry says.

The version of Windows after Vista will likely be a compromise. Microsoft plans to include virtual machine technology that keeps legacy code in a container that prevents virus-ridden programs from infecting the rest of the system. In July, Microsoft closed its acquisition of Softricity, whose software cordons off applications to prevent changes to DLLs, the Windows registry, or other settings from affecting other parts of the computer. Softricity tools also can package apps to be delivered across a network, bringing code to a PC from a remote server as needed.

Customers can envision three development methods for Windows apps: There will be a performance penalty for apps in the partition, in exchange for better security. There will be an application development method for hosted software. And there will be New Windows, free from the shackles of the past.

Still TO Do
Even assuming Microsoft can clean up Windows' complexity and backward-compatibility problems, that still leaves two big unaddressed areas: features and what to do about the Web. Planned Vista features left on the cutting-room floor would be natural fits for the next version. A PC-to-PC wireless syncing feature got dropped from Vista, as did a lightweight home networking infrastructure code-named Castle, Goffe says. Health monitoring and backup features for multiple PCs are still under development, and Microsoft technical fellow Gary Flake says Vista's Avalon graphics technology originally was slated for a bigger role than it plays.

How Microsoft divides Windows' functions across computers on the Internet is a more open question. InterKnowlogy's Huckaby says users of post-Vista Windows will likely manage their files from a Web app. WinFS, the file system dropped from Vista, could surface in releases of Office, letting users store files on servers running Microsoft's SharePoint and SQL Server products. Users could then search a Web site for their files instead of navigating through folders. "It's information at your fingertips, but it's a Web app," Huckaby says. "That's WinFS's bold promise." (Microsoft last year bought FolderShare, software from ByteTaxi that synchronizes files across PCs and even Macs.)

The Road Ahead
Windows Vista The next version of Microsoft's operating system will include a new user interface that automatically sorts related files into folders, an improved search engine, and more powerful graphics technology
Windows Fiji An interim release of Windows after Vista, this tune-up may include bug fixes and new features
Windows Vienna Windows after Vista is likely to include a revamped desktop and the ability to wall off old code from critical parts of the system and deliver features over the Web
It's unclear how quickly Microsoft will bring together the Windows desktop operating system and Windows Live, which Charles Fitzgerald, a Microsoft general manager for business strategy, calls "personal computing beyond the box." But there's little question the two efforts are merging. Microsoft even has its own abbreviation for the team that reports to Sinofsky: WWL, which stands for Windows/Windows Live. Ultimately, Microsoft's development environment will include a "Windows Live layer" of software for writing Internet services, says Steve Guggenheimer, application platform general manager.

Microsoft now publishes APIs for Windows Live apps, including its Windows Live Local mapping software and instant messaging service. But programming Windows and Windows Live is "radically different today," Flake says. "That's not necessarily a good thing." Microsoft plans to release a software development kit that simplifies programming of Windows Live APIs, which can request data from another machine on the Net.

"It's pretty obvious that the whole Windows Live and Office Live effort and post-Vista development are going to get closer," says David Harnett, senior director of IP Ventures at Microsoft. There's already some crossover between Windows Live and the desktop: Vista users will be able to download Windows Live applets called "gadgets," similar to miniapps from Apple and Yahoo.

Microsoft has to go it alone, for better or worse. "The notion that there's either a path to fold our hand, or say, 'We can't do it, let's buy somebody'--those don't exist," Ballmer told analysts in July. "We will do well ... whether it's me or the guy who has to replace me because we're not doing well."

Replacing Ballmer isn't the answer. Replacing Windows--with a version that's more responsive to changing needs, more Web friendly, and less anchored to the past--is the kind of daring change the company really needs.

Illustration by Ryan Etter