Sniffing out Microsoft's 'OS in the cloud' skunk-works project

There's a skunk-works project inside Microsoft under Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie that is dedicated to turning Windows into an Internet service. But what does that mean, exactly? Microsoft Senior VP of online services Steve Berkowitz helped me start piecing together Microsoft's vision for the future of Windows.

As I blogged yesterday, there’s a skunk-works project inside Microsoft under Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie that is dedicated to turning Windows into an Internet service. But what does that mean, exactly?

On Tuesday, November 28, I had a chance to pose that question to Steve Berkowitz, the Microsoft senior vice president in charge of Windows Live. Berkowitz wasn’t willing to completely open the kimono on Microsoft’s future plans. But he did help me put the secret “OS in the cloud” project in context.

“Over time, we’re figuring out how Windows Live (meshes with) Windows,” Berkowitz explained. “It’s not so much a set of features that makes Windows what it is. Windows is a bunch of feature sets.” And in the future, some of these features will reside in the “Internet cloud,” while others will reside locally on PCs, cell phones and other devices.

Microsoft already is beginning to turn that part of the vision into reality with Windows Vista. With Vista, Microsoft will offer users links via which they can download a number of Live services, including Windows Live Messenger, Windows Live Mail Desktop, Windows Live Mail and Windows Live OneCare.

Some Windows users believe that, going forward, Microsoft will decouple more and more of the currently integrated Windows features and make them available as free and/or paid Windows Live and/or MSN services. Rather than continuing its past behavior – which did little to endear the company to antitrust regulators, competitors and partners – Microsoft will bundle fewer and fewer brand-new features into future builds of shrink-wrapped Windows, some Windows watchers say.

So that’s the first step toward turning Windows into more of an Internet service. But there’s more happening as part of Ozzie’s OS in the cloud strategy, according to Berkowitz. Windows Live isn’t just a bunch of services; it’s an evolving development platform, too.

As Microsoft outlined earlier this year, the Live developer platform consists, at the core infrastructure level, of common contacts, identity and storage services; and at the common services level, of search, adCenter, presence, mapping and mobile services. Microsoft’s goal is to make the Live cloud look like the Windows platform, and the Windows platform look like the Live cloud, Berkowitz said.

“If we can make it so we are untethering you from your device, you will be able to have the consistent identity accessible to you from anywhere,” he said.

Microsoft is looking to identify the core assets -- a user’s address book, calendar, favorites, secure sign-on credentials – that are at the heart of both Windows on devices and Windows and the cloud and turning them into the uber-Windows platform, Berkowitz continued.

“If you take Windows apart – take all the whiz-bang stuff out – (there’s) the common platform, the core. Ray (Ozzie) believes if he can develop that layer, that is the true development platform,” Berkowitz said.

And with Microsoft being Microsoft, the ultimate goal, of course, is to convince developers that by building on top of Microsoft’s – rather than anyone else’s -- common core, they will have the best tools, the most reliable datacenter/support infrastructure and widest reach.

Bottom line: Windows Live, if Ozzie has his way, will be a leaner, meaner set of services that finally will deliver on Microsoft’s promise of computing anywhere, any time and on any device.

What do you think, readers? Is such a vision feasible? Do you see anything that will stop Ozzie and his cloud cohorts from realizing this goal? And do you think Google – in spite of its claims that it has no intentions of creating a GoogleOS – could beat Microsoft at its own game?