News of future Windows rocks the Net

A fascinating report by ZDNet's Mary Jo Foley sent the Web into a tizzy over the Fourth of July weekend, with its story of two new Consumer Windows products that Microsoft hopes to release in 2000 and 2001. I normally wouldn't have commented on this article, but I've gotten so many requests for clarification that I figured I should chime in with my own explanation of the news.

The story goes like this: In 2000, Microsoft will release its Millennium project, a Consumer Windows that is based on Windows 98, not Windows 2000. Millennium, which has yet to be officially named, will be the cornerstone of the "EasyPC" initiative, an attempt at making a new kind of PC that doesn't require the user to open the case to add memory, new hard drives, or any other kind of hardware. In an EasyPC machine, expansion is handled via DeviceBay cartridges, which will act like video game cartridges, and by external devices such as FireWire (IEEE 1394) and USB. Other than that, little is known about Millennium: It is expected to include a vastly simplified user interface and be geared toward typical home use scenarios: Game playing, Web browsing, Internet email, and the like. None of the Millennium information in this article was news to me. In fact, I've received numerous emails from beta testers who were recently contacted by Microsoft to join the Millennium beta, so a late 2000 release for this product is indeed possible.

The ZDNet article, however, also discusses a post-Millennium version of Consumer Windows that is code-named "Neptune." Like Millennium, I've heard about Neptune; John Dvorak supposedly released information about this product earlier this year (he didn't, actually, but that's another story), showing off its HTML user interface and communications-based design. According to Foley, Neptune will follow Millennium in 2001 as the new Consumer Windows, but will be based on the NT kernel used in Windows 2000, not the 98 kernel. And Neptune will be the first Windows OS to feature the "WinTone" promised by Bill Gates at Fall Comdex 1998. With WinTone, Foley writes, Windows PCs will be self-healing and self-repairing. Of course, Windows 2000 already features this, so I'm not sure what WinTone adds to the party. I suspect it has more to do with 24/7 Internet connectivity than those other features.

But there's more: Neptune is designed to be the ultimate client on a Universal Plug and Play (UPnP) network, where devices auto-configure themselves for the network and broadcast information to other clients that accurately identifies themselves. Neptune will also form the basis of post-Windows 2000 business OSes from Microsoft, so Microsoft is encouraging the Consumer Windows and Business Windows to get together and decide on a common user interface and other components. Perhaps most intriguingly, Neptune may be used as the basis of non-PC devices that will likely be based on EasyPC: Microsoft is considering media devices (for browsing the Web) and gaming consoles that are based on Neptune.

The biggest challenge in moving Consumer Windows to the NT/2000 core, of course, is compatibility. Microsoft had originally wanted Windows 98 to be the end of the line for the 9x line, but problems getting Windows 2000 scaled down to their consumer customer's needs forced a rethinking of that strategy. By the time Neptune actually ships, the industry should have moved on to a new type of device (EasyPC and its relations), making the need for legacy (ISA, DOS, etc.) support superfluous. The key goal for Microsoft, then, will be application software compatibility: Currently there are few entertainment titles that run successfully on Windows 2000, compared to Windows 98. Over the next few years, refinements to DirectX and the Win32 API should eliminate these problems. So, by the time Neptune actually does ship (and, no, it won't be in 2001), compatibility issues should have been solved, if only by the passage of time.

And that's really the only problem I have with the scenario reported in the ZDNet article: The timeline. Anyone who believes that Microsoft will ship a consumer OS in 2000, only a year after Windows 98 SE, and then ship another one in 2001, only a year after Millennium, is being delusional. To be fair to ZDNet, they're simply reporting on internal Microsoft documents: The delusion here, of course, is in Redmond, which still believes it can ship products on schedule, despite a decade of evidence proving otherwise. Windows 2000, for example, has been in beta for almost two years. There is absolutely no way they're going to ship two consumer OSes, two years in a row. Fuggetaboutit.

If you were wondering whether I was going to refute the ZDNet article, wonder no more: To my knowledge, there's nothing wrong with it (other than an inane and inaccurate quote from "betanews"). However, I should say that most of the Neptune information was news to me so I can't vouch for its accuracy. I suspect that the next few years are going to be quite interesting for Windows users and I would like to offer up a cautionary bit of advice for anyone thinking of moving to Windows 2000. It goes something like this:

When Microsoft decided on the name change from Windows NT 5.0 to Windows 2000, the thinking was that the 9x and NT products lines were being merged, so a single product called "Windows" made sense. However, this decision was a poor one: NT wasn't ready to take over the Consumer Windows product line, as it turned out, and customers used to products such as Windows 95 and Windows 98 naturally assumed that Windows 2000 was the next obvious upgrade. It isn't. Folks, Windows 2000 is a business OS, designed for corporate servers, desktops, and mobile users. Despite some concessions to consumer-oriented technologies such as DirectX and 3D display adapter support, Windows 2000 is not for home users. It's not for game players. And it's probably not suitable for most of the people pining away for its release. Windows 2000 isn't as compatible with existing hardware or software as Windows 98 is. And now that future Windows such as Millennium are on the drawing board, hopefully a large number of the people previously looking to Windows 2000 will now have a new goal for their next upgrade.

That's not to say that Windows 2000 isn't superb: It is. But its biggest strength is its NT core, which isn't necessarily appropriate for most home/consumer users. Yes, there will always be the so-called power users that want to run Windows 2000 Professional (just as they're now running Windows NT 4.0), but for most people, Windows 2000 isn't the solution. But now you know what the next few years look like and you can plan accordingly. Just add a year or two to the previously stated timelines when you start thinking ahead: None of this stuff is going to happen on the schedules we've seen here of course

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