Opinion: Microsoft could, and should, create Windows 2000 Consumer

The recent debates about the future of Windows 98 and the release delays of Windows 2000 have gotten me thinking about the viability of a Windows 2000 Consumer Edition (this could also be called Windows 2000 Personal Edition; pick your poison). Microsoft's goals for Windows 2000, and the subsequent code and feature bloat caused by implementing those goals, leave the near future of the consumer line in the hands of the Windows 98 team, which is currently working on its first Windows 98 OEM Service Release (OSR), which will be provided to hardware manufacturers such as Dell and Compaq when its ready. Windows OSR products are designed to provide bug fixes, some new features (IE 5.0 instead of IE 4.0, for example) and new driver support, and Microsoft has never--to this point, anyway--sold an OSR product in the retail market because of the support headaches such as product would cause.

So where does this leave Microsoft's consumer-level customers, which have to represent their largest or second-largest customer base by number? The Windows 98 OSR release won't be available at retail, meaning that existing Windows 98 customers will need to download all of the features and bug fixes included in this product via the Windows Update Web site. This can be a daunting task, given the sheer size of these components, especially IE 5.0, which can run to over 50 MB. And if Microsoft is serious about getting IE 5.0 into the hands of the most users, it might consider providing a better form of delivery to its hundreds of millions of customers.

The future of Windows 98, at this point in time anyway, is wrapped into a series of OSR releases that will occur over the next few years. Bug fixes, product updates, and some new features will appear, as always, on the Windows Update site. Meanwhile, Windows 2000 will--eventually, they tell us--be released, causing lots of confusion among those who are "stuck" with Windows 2000. I mean, Windows 2000 sounds newer than Windows 98: Won't most consumer think they need to "upgrade" to Windows 2000?

If you've been following WinInfo for a while, you may remember stories from last Fall where I mentioned that Microsoft would be consolidating the NT and Windows products. This was to have happened in the NT 6.0 time frame, however, not NT 5.0. Had Windows 2000 been released as Windows NT 5.0, there would have been far less confusion in the marketplace: Consumers would not have expected a clean Windows 98-to-Windows NT 5.0 upgrade and they would have been content in the knowledge that they were running the latest and greatest version of Windows.

The strangest thing about the name change is the timing. Last August, I attended a press Workshop for the then-Windows NT 5.0 and the overwhelming message was simple: Windows NT 5.0 is for corporations only, they said. Consumer desktops will want to wait for a new consumer OS, which was then expected in 3 years or so. They even went a bit further: Because of the differences in key system files between Windows NT and Windows 9x, Microsoft would only guarantee that Windows NT 4.0 could be upgraded to Windows NT 5.0; a Windows 98-to-Windows NT 5.0 upgrade would be somewhat supported, but would not always work. And when it did work, many of the applications already on the system would need to be reinstalled. Frankly, it all made a lot of sense.

Then the name change was announced and everything got turned upside-down. Now that Windows NT is called "Windows," it's only natural that consumers and other customers would assume that a Windows 98-to-Windows 2000 upgrade would work, just as Windows 95-to-98 worked.

It won't.

So here's Microsoft, lost in a sea of product delays, creeping featuritis, and massive code bloat. The Windows 2000 Professional product, which used to be known as NT 5.0 Workstation, will not be found acceptable to most consumers and home users. It doesn't support as much hardware as Windows 98 and it doesn't support key consumer technologies such as WebTV for Windows. What it does support is a mess of corporate features that have no place in the home, such as advanced security and encryption, and features that will only work when a Windows 2000 Server is found elsewhere on the network, such as IntelliMirror and Active Directory. Not exactly the same as the inclusion of AOL and Online Services in Windows 98, is it?

So here are the problems with Windows 2000, from a consumer's perspective:

  • It's too big. The Windows 2000 Professional product will be at least three times as big as Windows 98.

  • It's not configurable. Windows 2000 offers no way during Setup for the user to choose the features they want.

  • It's not compatible. Windows 2000 offers support for only a small subset of the hardware (and frankly, software) that's supported in Windows 98.

  • It's not upgradeable. While a Windows 98-to-Windows 2000 upgrade is semi-supported, it's not guaranteed to work.

  • It's too slow. On a typical Windows 98 system (a Pentium 200 with 32 MB of RAM), Windows 2000 will under perform Windows 98 dramatically. In fact, I recommend a minimum of a Pentium II 300 with 64 MB of RAM to anyone that wants to run Windows 2000; a dual-processor system with at least 128 MB of RAM would be much better.

  • It's not complete. There are features in Windows 98 that people use every day that are missing in Windows 2000. They may never make it over either, so look carefully at the way you use your system and then evaluate Windows 2000 with this information in mind.

  • It's bloated with features you'll never use. Like IntelliMirror, Active Directory support, anal-retentive security features, and an encrypted file system. Confused by any of these terms? Who wouldn't be? Even the crowd that's supposed to use these features (corporations) doesn't know what do to with all this stuff.

  • It's been re-written, largely, from scratch. The architect of Windows NT, Dave Cutler, is MIA in the Clustering group at Microsoft and is probably beside himself at the way Microsoft has dismantled and rewritten his baby. That this product is so far out of whack right now is a simple testament to Cutler's dedication to quality and getting it right. Windows NT has never been as messed up as it is now, and Cutler's absence from the day-to-day machinations of Windows 2000 is telling. Do you really want to be the first person to install this thing? Get used to the "on hold" music at Microsoft support.
So what could be done to "fix" Windows 2000 and make it appropriate for a consumer-level OS that the vast majority of Microsoft's customers could actually use? Consider the following:
  • Get over NT. Microsoft has been talking up Windows NT so much for the past few years that they're hovering at the point of no return. Here's a news flash, Microsoft: People love Windows 98. For myself, I use the thing every day and I'm a pretty serious power user: I develop Active Server components and deploy them across a network, use Visual Basic to develop desktop Windows applications, and use Visual InterDev and SQL Server 7.0 to developer Web applications. All in Windows 98. And guess what? It never crashes. Oh, I can play every game on the planet. I really love that.

    Maybe a Windows 2000 Consumer Edition could be a better mix of Windows 98 and Windows NT than Windows 2000 Professional is. No one cares about the NT kernel if all it brings to the table is incompatibility. And from a consumer's standpoint, that's what it does bring.

  • Drop features that aren't needed. Take Windows 2000 Pro and remove the support for security, encryption, Active Directory, IntelliMirror, and anything else that isn't needed in a consumer product. Watch the code size shrink. Watch the OS fly.

  • Make it customizable. Get those hard-working folks on the Windows 98 team to write your install program. They got it right and you still haven't.

  • Get this product out to hardware and software makers now and give them everything they need to get updates into the hands of users so that their products work when this is released. Get as much of this onto the CD-ROM as you can. Just make it work.
Essentially, a Consumer Edition of Windows 2000 would be far easier to make then the bloated half products they're working on now. And there would be far more interested in it than there is at the corporate level because those people are more concerned about Y2K right now than Win2K. If Microsoft had any guts, it would publicly admit that it bit off more than it could chew and just release this stuff in steps. The first step, of course, would be to reevaluate the features that are being added to the OS. Add Active Directory in Windows 2000 OptionPack 1 and IntelliMirror in OptionPack 2, or whatever. Don't delay the whole OS over this stuff. If Windows 2000 was easier to deploy, corporations might just go for it this summer.

Of course, the problems with a Consumer Edition of Windows 2000 are legion. The most glaring problem with this strategy, of course, is Windows 98. Microsoft spent over three years and countless billions developing this product, and they want to get paid for it. The company plans on a specific lifetime for each of its products and that lifetime is designed to make it pay for itself. If Windows 98 is sent out to the pasture in Q1 2000, it will probably lose money, or at least not even come close to making the cash that Windows 95 did. It can't be understated how important it is for Microsoft to issue those press releases declaring what a success Windows is for them: It helps the corporate pride and it makes the people working there think they're doing something right.

Get over it. People are starting to look at alternatives, such as Linux, and it's only a matter of time before RedHat or someone similar comes up with an OS that is as easy to install as Windows. Don't give them that chance.

I'll conclude this massive essay with one other remote possibility. As Yoda said in the Empire Strikes Back (hey, I'm a geek, what did you think I was going to quote, Shakespeare?), "there is another." Microsoft also has another operating system, Windows CE, that would make a fine consumer product. As with Windows 2000 Consumer, the problems with this particular strategy are also legion: Windows CE is completely incompatible with today's Windows apps and it runs on a confusing array of hardware. Where Windows CE comes in, however, is on non-PC devices, which are expected to someday outnumber PCs in homes. A set-top box attached to the TV, running Windows CE, would make a powerful statement if it was done right.



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