Two months before Microsoft is supposed to finish Windows Vista, the first new version of its desktop operating system in half a decade, the company is under intense pressure to change not only the way it develops Windows in the future, but everything about it. The last big Windows shake-up was 10 years ago, when Microsoft integrated its Web browser and Internet Protocol stack to fend off Netscape. Now Microsoft is at a crossroads again, and whatever comes after Vista could be a radical break from the past.
While it's putting the finishing touches on Vista--a near-final test version could arrive this week--Microsoft is at work on the next major version of its most important product, a system code-named Vienna that's supposed to introduce a whole- sale reworking of the Windows desktop. Before that, a tune-up of Vista, dubbed Fiji, is in the works.
But post-Vista Windows will break with the past only if Microsoft can figure out how to do things differently. Here are the challenges the company faces as it works on Fiji, Vienna, and whatever follows them:
Faster delivery. First and foremost, Microsoft must figure out how to deliver Windows features faster. If it takes another five years to deliver the next major upgrade to Windows, Microsoft's golden goose is cooked.
More Web functions. Microsoft must increase the operating system's value by delivering many of its functions on the Web, in ways that can be updated as PC users' needs change. The Web can be a fabulous delivery vehicle for a modern operating system, but Windows has to get smarter about handling data and programs that live online. Windows Live and Office Live are part of the answer, but Windows itself needs to become Webified.
Better security. Windows' nagging reliability and security problems stem from its wide-open support of every software program and hardware device ever designed to work with the system. Microsoft must find a way around that.
Smaller Windows. The system has been growing with every version for the past 20 years. It's become so bloated with old code and features that the drawbacks (security holes, resource consumption, regulatory ire) outweigh the benefits.
Put another way, Vista could be the last whopping Windows operating system designed to run on a single PC, giving way to a sleeker design that divides functions across the PC and the Web. "Is Vista the last big release of Windows?" says Gartner analyst Tom Bittman. "I firmly believe that it is."
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