Why you'll have a long wait for Microsoft's next OS

Why you'll have a long wait for Microsoft's next OS

Summary: The recent buzz over Microsoft’s efforts to build a completely new OS from scratch has led to some wild speculation. As my colleague Mary Jo Foley has reported, Microsoft already has an all-star team that’s working on a next-generation operating system. It’s called Midori, and Mary Jo’s sources say it’s in “incubation,” which means it’s on a fast track to being turned into a product. But will Midori replace Windows in the near future? Not a chance. If Microsoft really does turn this project into a commercial product, I believe it will exist alongside Windows for several years, at a bare minimum. To learn why, let’s dust off the Windows history books.

SHARE:

The recent buzz over Microsoft’s efforts to build a completely new OS from scratch has led to some wild speculation. The silliness reached its apex last weekend in the New York Times, where San Jose State University business professor Randall Stross argued that “[t]he best solution to the multiple woes of Windows is starting over. Completely. Now.” In a rambling essay filled with factual errors and mistaken assumptions, he mentions Microsoft’s Singularity research project and says “Microsoft should move its researchers into the heart of its systems development team” and begin turning that research project into a replacement for Windows.

Why you’ll have a long wait for Microsoft’s next OSThat point of view is a popular one. Over the past year, I've read plenty of speculation that Microsoft is planning a "complete rewrite" of Windows. Most are based on wishful thinking rather than anything concrete, and Microsoft has pretty much stomped those rumors for Windows 7. But hope springs eternal for the version after that, which is why Singularity has taken on an almost mystical aura for Windows critics.

I’ve got good news for Prof. Stross: As my colleague Mary Jo Foley has reported, Microsoft already has an all-star team that’s working on a next-generation operating system. It’s called Midori, and Mary Jo’s sources say it’s in “incubation,” which means it’s on a fast track to being turned into a product.

[For another point of view on Microsoft's next-generation OS, see Mary Jo Foley's post, "Might Microsoft's Midori be 'Cairo' revisited?"]

But will Midori replace Windows in the near future? Not a chance. If Microsoft really does turn this project into a commercial product, I believe it will exist alongside Windows for several years, at a bare minimum. To learn why, let’s dust off the Windows history books.

Way back in 1993, Microsoft rolled out Windows NT. It was technically a 1.0 release, and the code base was completely new, built by a team led by Dave Cutler, who had previously worked on VMS. (Cutler reportedly told Steve Ballmer that he didn’t want to build a “toy operating system.” Ballmer says he replied, “Good. We already have a toy operating system.”)

The NT label stood for New Technology, and for almost another decade more Microsoft built the consumer (3.1/9x) and business (NT) lines in parallel. It wasn’t until the introduction of Windows XP at the end of 2001 that the old line was killed off and the “new technology” became mainstream for all Windows users.

During that eight years, Microsoft released five major versions of its “old technology,” and four versions of its NT product, in both server and workstation flavors, with multiple service packs along the way. Many businesses continued using Windows 95 and Windows 98 on desktops for years after the launch of Windows XP and more than 10 years after the introduction of the “new technology.”

So what does this history lesson have to do with Midori? Maybe it will make more sense if we give Midori a new name: Windows NNT (for New New Technology). An operating system built on a completely different kernel would, by definition, be frightening to conservative business customers, and incompatibility issues would be legion, by definition. It took three years before Windows NT was available in a version that was considered acceptable for desktop use, and it took more than six years before Windows 2000 put all the pieces together in a package that achieved wide acceptance. Meanwhile, Microsoft continued to ship tens and eventually hundreds of millions of Windows licenses using its “old technology” OS.

If we look at Midori as Windows NNT, it has the potential to coexist alongside the Windows Vista/Windows 7/Server 2008 line for at least five years. Just as with NT in its early days, there would be plenty of customers willing to kick the tires and even deploy the new OS for specialized reasons. I can think of three situations where a new OS would be welcome:

  • Special-purpose consumer devices. Windows Media Center is mature and extremely well supported. It wouldn’t be that difficult to port the Media Center code to a next-generation operating system that could then form the basis for cool, quiet PCs that could form the hub of a household digital media system. In fact, a device like HP’s MediaSmart Server, which currently runs Windows Home Server, could combine Media Center and backup functions into a single box and would probably run better without the unnecessary overhead of Windows components it doesn’t use.
  • Virtual servers. Windows Server 2008 includes the Hyper-V virtualization platform, which can host multiple virtual machines on a single physical box. Instead of requiring Windows Server 2008 Core, why not build the virtualization platform on the new OS? Microsoft would continue to sell Windows Server licenses for the VMs themselves, but could improve performance, manageability, and security on the underlying platform.
  • High-performance workstations. A small but influential percentage of Windows customers use the platform for graphics, design modeling, and other high-performance tasks where compatibility isn’t an issue. Presumably, AutoCAD and Adobe would be among the first companies to port their software to the new platform.

Meanwhile, it would be business as usual for the rest of the Windows platform. In a world where a significant percentage of businesses are still running on Windows 2000, it’s hard to imagine that an all-new platform would achieve any critical mass until early adopters had pounded on it for years. Likewise, I can’t imagine OEMs being willing to accept the burdens of selling and supporting a completely new platform until it has proved itself in the real world for a generation or two. And just as in the early days of the NT family, hardware manufacturers would continue to focus their priorities on the mainstream OS, meaning that choices would be more limited for early adopters of the new OS.

When I add it all up, I see a product mix that looks remarkably similar to the one Microsoft sold in the 1990s, with a mainstream line (the Windows Vista/Windows 7/Server 2008 family) and a new line that has to prove itself for at least five years before it can take the lead.

Topics: Windows, Microsoft, Operating Systems, Software

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Talkback

90 comments
Log in or register to join the discussion
  • The next OS from Microsoft

    should employ the best bits of what is available, whether they are Microsoft ideas or not - most of the best ones have not been. For example, it should at the very least have support for ZFS, if not using that as default.

    Also, since Gates thinks touch is so important, perhaps a modified form of communication with the computer - perhaps like the gesturing style input of the Wii.
    chrome_slinky@...
    • Microsoft ideas...

      [I]"The next OS from Microsoft-should employ the best bits of what is available, whether they are Microsoft ideas or not"[/I]

      How is this different from every other thing Microsoft has done?
      Tigertank
      • Perhaps

        because I said best bits
        chrome_slinky@...
  • The kind of future you outline

    requires leadership with vision. MS has not demonstrated
    anything like that. On the contrary, MS leadership reads like an
    investment portfolio run by MBAs.
    frgough
    • LOL!

      No vision at all?

      "A PC on every desk" which is now a reality and you call that no vision?

      LOL!
      Sleeper Service
      • The fact that you have to cite

        something from 20 years ago proves my point.
        frgough
      • AMEN

        I agree (a PC on every desk) without Bill Gates and Microsoft I truly doubt that would be the case today.
        cbossieux@...
        • PC on every desk

          IBM PC and/or compatibles. I'm afraid IBM came with that concept/idea.

          Bill Gates also didn't invent the internet, while we are on the visionary topic.

          Bill Gates his vision on the internet was: "The Internet? We are not interested in it"
          TedKraan
  • How About Asking The Users For Once?

    Ask the XP users since we want to stay with what we have and not go to Vista...ask us what improvements/additions we would like to see to XP and then give it to us.

    Why does it have to be a major overhaul if something is working?
    itanalyst2@...
    • The need to remain competitive for the future

      Other operating systems are trying to make a name for themselves by differentiating themselves from XP. Sooner or later one of their ideas is going to stick, and MS will be caught with its pants down. Unless MS beats them to the punch, which I think they at least need to try to do.
      Michael Kelly
    • Well Duhhh...why do you think...nt

      nt
      ItsTheBottomLine
    • I think they did listen to the users

      [i]Why does it have to be a major overhaul if something is working?[/i]

      Well, on a simple level, Microsoft is a business and needs to generate income, plus, the same people now having a go at MS for creating a successor to XP would be complaining that they hadn't.

      Anyway, the under the hood overhaul to security, whether you like it or not, [i]was[/i] asked for by XP users, but the changes are so fundamental (e.g. monolithic to componentised, the introduction of UAC, the revised User folder structure to enable better application of discrete user accounts, etc.) that they couldn't work in an update, or even a service pack. Hell, the move from IPv4 to IPv6 is substantial enough without all the extra stuff.

      Now personally I love Vista. I go back to XP and it seems a kludgy and old fashioned OS by comparison - sure, there was a learning curve, perhaps more so since I am a bit of a power user, and my way of skipping around the OS to do certain tasks went out the window in some cases and I had to relearn - not as easy as it sounds! But I do think that all the naysayers (and I do see where they are coming from, or at least where their (mis)conceptions about Vista's so called problems come from) need to understand is that the security foundations of Windows have been rebuilt fairly substantially, in a way that XP could never accomodate.
      Ben_E
      • MS listening to users???

        Your statement "....is that the security foundations of Windows have been rebuilt fairly substantially, in a way that XP could never accomodate." is stretching it a bit. I would argue that if MS was not so greedy and allowed the user community to work on XP many of the problems in XP would have been fixed. Unfortunately MS's business plan precludes such efforts.
        If I ditch XP it won't be for Vista or anything else from MS. After all when you pay for something you expect it to work a concept that appears to be beyond Mr. Gates' business plan.
        cavlosnap@...
  • Opportunity

    It would be fascinating to see if Microsoft could use a new OS as a means of joining the Open Source community rather than continuing this ridiculous fight. They could deliver a version of the OS and the kernal that are open source, but maintain some semblence of control over the process. This version could be freely assembled as a basic OS for desktops, notebooks and servers.

    Microsoft could then grow a services arm that allowed them to either license additional capabilities built atop this core platform for specific uses. So maybe media centre functionality or a modern version of DirectX for gaming for home users. You could stream those updates to your PC as and when Microsoft update tehm and do so for an annual fee.

    Likewise, Microsoft could allow this OS to perform basic server type functionality, but create web service type hooks to the cloud for corporates that integrate your basic server with their server farm for storage or flexible computing time. Microsoft could provide management tools or advanced services like Directory Services and Virtualisation on an annual subscription fee. They could also build up a robust subscription based "support" capability.

    Of course, this still leaves them with plenty of room to grow their core app business like Office, Exchange, SQL and Dynamics. The key is that the OS now has the community involved, piracy of the OS itself is no longer an issue and it means the monopoly is gone.

    I think virtualisation capabilities now make the transition much more possible. You could switch to the new OS and have guest OS sessions running older technology VMs.

    What it does require is that vision and leap of faith that Microsoft seems to have lost. They no longer seem willing to bet the business on the strength of their products and marketing.
    SuperSean
    • Why would they?

      And who said there is any fight, except for the F/OSS folks?

      In other words, Qui bono?
      Confused by religion
    • Opportunity

      This is a publicly owned company. What you are asking them to give away is making what? Thirty or forty billion every year or maybe that's every quarter like clock work?

      If Gates wants to give away his money that is between himself and his wife.

      You go giving away the share holders cash cow and you can end up desitute and doing time.

      To even suggest such a thing suggests that in some regards your feet are not firmly planted in the real world.

      They could most likely give away DOS or windows 95 but anything more recent is not in the cards because it is still worth money.

      You have fun now and may God bless and keep you.
      deowll
      • The Problem

        How long is the current strategy that Microsoft is executing going to continue to work? They've admitted that they cannot have five year OS delivery cycles, but they seem utterly unable to do anything less than three. When we look at their last several OS releases, most of them have been fairly disappointing.

        - Windows 98 (average - more of a Win95 Update)
        - Windows ME (disaster)
        - Windows 2000 (exceptional delivery)
        - Windows XP (Poor)
        - Windows XP SP2 (Very Good - it was the equivalent of Win98)
        - Vista (terrible)

        So in the last ten years that demonstrates a poor delivery record by my standard. From an enterprise view, where I personally have purchasing control over 25,000 machines and deal with Microsoft directly for our EA, the feedback we're giving them is that the value is not there at the moment in a three year deal and when it expires in 2010, we will be reviewing our requirement.

        Why? Well, during this most recent period cycle we will receive Vista and "possibly" Windows 7. We'll also get Office 2007 and possibly another version. These are the main components of a basic EA - you can talk about Windows CALs and things like that, but those are rats and mice from a cost perspective.

        In this year, we will get nothing new but pay about $10m. Is that good value? No.

        Primarily, we're still using XP like most people and Office 2003. Office 2007 is marginal value for us and the cost of implementing it and Vista are high from an Opex and Capex view. That is further driving down the value of the EA.

        Now however, if Microsoft came out with a bespoked OS offering that allowed them to modularly update pieces and components via "the cloud" or whatever on a regular basis, whenever those pieces were ready to go (as opposed to when the ENTIRE OS is ready), then that would decrease my upgrade costs and ensure over the full life of my contract I was getting something of value.

        In terms of why open source the core, well, why not? I think having the community be able to inspect the code and work on improvements and fixes has worked for linux. You need only look at some of the "stateless OS" work being done at the very top end of the community to see that the model works in terms of innovation.

        Another thing it would do is allow Microsoft to focus its resources on adding value to the core and thus its customers. The core OS and Kernel isn't terribly valuable, it is some of the surrounding apps and functionality that are the value. It would also give them a good opportunity to grow a services business model which is poor now.

        Commercially it also has some benefits. First of all, nobody says they would stop selling Windows, they'd simply be putting the core into open source. Secondly, it would help flatten out the spikes in their revenue curve - they would become less reliant on delivering software to dates, they could just release components when they are ready but charge customers an annual subscription fee. Finally, it would get them out of anti-trust hell which is good for shareholders.

        I don't have all the answers, but I think their current model is a dinosaur and while it is the biggest and baddest dinosaur at Jurassic Park, they are still only one meteor strike away from being a footnote in history.
        SuperSean
  • It ain't necessarily so

    [i]An operating system built on a completely different kernel would, by definition, be frightening to conservative business customers, and incompatibility issues would be legion, by definition.[/i]

    Ed, this just ain't so.

    To pick a simple example: Solaris, BSD, and Linux all have completely different kernels -- and yet the same software runs on all three. The reason is that user-level software never sees the kernel -- that's what system libraries are for.

    Even Microsoft managed to mostly maintain compatibility in the change from MSWin3 to MSWinNT; the ugly stuff was primarily caused by the need to get real about security models. That wasn't a technical issue, it was a marketing one (and still is.)
    Yagotta B. Kidding
    • Our memories are different

      "Microsoft managed to mostly maintain compatibility in the change from MSWin3 to MSWinNT..."

      They used common APIs, but a lot of programs required major rewrites.

      The biggest problem for the user base I'm referring to is with custom apps, which have to be tested very carefully against a diverse hardware base. A minor incompatibility can cause major headaches and cripple a business if it's discovered after deployment.
      Ed Bott
      • Applications or drivers?

        [i]The biggest problem for the user base I'm referring to is with custom apps, which have to be tested very carefully against a diverse hardware base.[/i]

        I'm having a hard time wrapping my brain around the idea of user-generated applications that [b]ever[/b] get close to kernel-level programming. Not saying it doesn't happen, but it's kind of like removing your own appendix: not smart if you have any viable alternative and never desirable.

        I suspect that this is a case of being trapped in a culture that started with PC-DOS and its bare-bones "if you want a job done, do it yourself (including direct hardware access)" applications model. That seems to be unique to the Microsoft "ecosystem;" in the Unix, VMS, mainframe, etc. worlds the whole concept is alien.
        Yagotta B. Kidding