Microsoft announces new consumer Windows!

Microsoft president Steve Ballmer took to the stage at WinHEC, the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference, today with news of a bombshell: The company will release a major follow-on to Windows 98 "sometime in 2000" that is apparently based on the old Windows 9x kernel, not the Windows NT kernel used in Windows 2000. This is a major about-face for the company, which had previously stated that the NT kernel was the basis for all of its upcoming operating system endeavors. In fact, at WinHEC last year, Microsoft CEO Bill Gates said that Windows 98 would be the end of the line for the old 16/32-bit DOS/Windows line.

This next consumer version of Windows, which has yet to be named, will feature a number of new features designed to make PCs much easier to use. It's currently unclear whether the new user interface enhancements featured in the "Neptune" project will be included, however. Microsoft is also working on a new hardware initiative with Intel called Easy PC that will focus on creating simpler designs that use only USB, FireWire, and Device Bay for expansion. This type of system, which will presumably run the new Windows, will not require the user to ever open the case to insert cards or memory.

"There's a good reason to build upon the foundation of the personal computer," Ballmer said. "It's brought us all the success we've all had, and the PC is not getting less popular."

Ballmer was characteristically critical of Microsoft's failures, including the fact that PCs are just too hard to use and prone to errors. But the president said that Microsoft has been "reborn" to the needs of consumers and the current plan to simplify PCs within a few years will reap enormous benefits. PCs of the future, Ballmer says, will become "consumer appliances" that fit in anywhere in the house, offering a variety of styles, colors, and form factors.

Consumers and home users will want to wait for the next consumer Windows: Ballmer reiterated that Windows 2000, which will ship this October, is designed only for corporations. Microsoft plans to have a 64-bit version of Windows 2000 ready for the release of Intel's first 64-bit microprocessor, code-named Merced, shipping by this time next year. The 64-bit version of Windows 2000 was demonstrated for the first time publicly on Wednesday, and Ballmer noted that it is about 30 times faster than the 32-bit version while running SQL Server.

Also demonstrated at WinHEC is a new type of low-cost server hardware called the Windows Server Appliance. This little $1000 box performs file, print, and Internet sharing without any additional applications. And the operating system is Windows NT 4.0 Embedded Edition, which allows for a streamlined setup and quicker operations.

"Small-business customers have asked us for easy networking solutions for sharing information and connecting to the Internet," said Jim Allchin, senior vice president of Microsoft's Personal and Business Systems Group. "Together, Microsoft and Intel are addressing customer needs by delivering an easy-to-use, highly reliable Windows-based appliance.

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