Neptune - the new Windows

Microsoft Corp. is attempting to churn out this month its first internal builds of Neptune, the code name for the first consumer version of Windows built on the NT kernel.
Written by John G.Spooner, Contributor and  Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

Neptune is slated as the follow-on to Millennium, the code name for the final version of Windows based on the Windows 9x kernel.

Neptune will be Microsoft's first operating system to make use of the WinTone service that CEO Bill Gates outlined last fall. Much like Sun Microsystems Inc.'s WebTone concept, WinTone is aimed at making PCs self-healing and self-updating.

According to Microsoft documents examined by ZDNet's sister publications Sm@rtReseller and PC Week, the company has a simple, albeit ambitious, rallying cry behind the NT kernel-based operating system: "It just works."

Tentatively set to go into beta next summer and ship commercially in April 2001, Neptune will include technology that enables a PC to automatically configure its network stack and connect to Universal Plug and Play-enabled devices. Neptune also will incorporate a new, simpler Web-like user interface, eliminating Windows' typically cryptic error messages and improving support for hardware and applications, according to the Microsoft documents.

Microsoft will target Neptune at consumers, positioning it as a follow-on to Millennium, the next Windows 98 upgrade, due next year. But because Neptune will be based on the NT kernel, Microsoft is encouraging its Consumer Windows division and Business and Enterprise division teams to share components, such as the user interface. As a result, the new usability features developed for Neptune will likely show up in future releases of Business Windows, as Microsoft is calling post-Windows 2000 versions of the operating system.

The common NT code base also means shared device drivers and APIs between Microsoft's consumer and business operating systems, which would make life easier for IT managers supporting both platforms. "The fewer drivers, the fewer patches I have to worry about, the happier I am," said Steve Curcuru, resident wizard at Boston-based Mugar Enterprises Inc. and a PC Week Corporate Partner. "My ideal [environment] is a selectable interface that watches what I do. I just say, 'Find this document,' and it pulls it back from wherever it is."

Neptune will provide users with access to a variety of back-end services on MSN (The Microsoft Network), including online shopping; gaming; e-mail, data and file storage; and software downloads, according to the documents. In addition, a Neptune adaptation tool kit will let third parties optimise the operating system for non-PC platforms. Two such platforms that Microsoft is considering are a Game PC for gaming applications and a Media PC for browsing the Internet.

Some features slated for Neptune, such as a reduction in boot time, will first appear in Millennium, the code name for Consumer Windows. Microsoft began soliciting beta testers for Millennium late this week and is telling testers to expect the operating system to be "legacy-free," meaning it will no longer support DOS applications, according to testers. "If it's based on the 9x kernel, I'm wondering if they will have to rewrite the kernel [to eliminate DOS]," said Nate Mook, Webmaster with BetaNews.Com, a Web site for software testers in the U.S.

Millennium will be a key component of Easy PC, a joint venture between Microsoft and Intel Corp. aimed at making PCs easier to set up, use and expand through support of Universal Serial Bus and the elimination of older technologies such as ISA.

As Microsoft strives to make Windows easier to use, it continues to grapple with the issue of application support for these next-generation operating systems. While Microsoft endeavours to make sure legacy COM (Component Object Model) and Win32 applications will work on Neptune, only COM+-enabled applications will be able to take advantage of all of Neptune's features. COM+ is the object plumbing within Windows 2000. In addition, games are likely to be especially hard to move over to the NT code base. Currently, 75 percent of games don't run on Windows 2000, Microsoft acknowledges. And the number and type of NT drivers in the consumer space lag considerably behind those in the Windows 9x world.

If Microsoft is unable to complete the monumental task of making legacy Windows 9x applications run satisfactorily on Neptune, it has contingency plans for releasing an OEM System Release update to Millennium in 2001, according to the documents. Shawn Sanford, Microsoft product manager for Consumer Windows, would not comment on future versions of Consumer Windows, saying that "specifics are still being batted around."

However, Sanford reiterated the company's overall operating system strategy: "We're going to continue to drive forward with this initiative of making PCs easier to use. It really benefits the end user."

Neptune is key to Microsoft's internal goal of continuing to bolster its consumer operating system revenues in an increasingly saturated PC market. Microsoft hopes to go from $2.4bn (£1.46bn) in consumer operating system revenues in fiscal 2001 to $2.8bn in fiscal 2002, according to the documents.

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