The Case for a Modular Windows

If you're following the Microsoft antitrust case, you're aware that nine nonsettling US states have asked a federal judge to consider forcing the company to modularize Windows XP desktop versions. A modularized Windows would enable users, PC makers, and IT administrators to add and remove middleware components, such as Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE), Windows Movie Maker (WMM), Windows Messenger, and Windows Media Player (WMP). This solution makes sense, and I think Microsoft should voluntarily adopt it immediately. Before I jump into the benefits, let me explain why I think such a solution is possible.

During the Microsoft Office 2000 beta, I requested a more modular Office suite that would give end users and IT administrators fine-grained control over which features were installed. Microsoft could create these features, I reasoned, as software components that would expand the choices that users currently see on the Office custom installation menu. But Microsoft explained that it had developed the Office code-base over a long time period, and creating components from the Office code would require a complete rewrite.

Windows 9x was a similar software house of cards--a "thing built on a thing," as Andrew Schulman, software expert and author of the "Undocumented Windows" books, once called it, referring to the product's legacy as first MS-DOS, then DOS with a GUI, and finally as a purportedly cohesive single product. Win9x is the ultimate example of the spaghetti code that young programmers are cautioned about in entry-level high school and college software-development classes--a crude mismatch of old and new code, seemingly stuck together with bubble gum.

I'm happy to say that the Win9x days are disappearing. Windows NT, built from scratch and properly designed with a modular, extensible architecture, has grown into Windows 2000, and now Windows XP. Although the NT products and Win9x present a similar end-user experience, NT experts know (and appreciate) that NT is not Win9x but rather a superior product. With the release of XP late last year, even consumers can begin to understand what the IT world has known for years.

Microsoft first used NT's modular architecture to port the product to various hardware platforms, such as MIPS, Power PC, and Digital Alpha, and to provide various runtime environments. Over the years, Microsoft established new goals for NT. Among the goals was an embedded product, succinctly called Windows NT Embedded 4.0, which appeared just before Microsoft finalized Win2K in late 1999. This product further modularizes the NT base and lets developers create solutions specific to embedded markets. NT Embedded fully supports the Win32 environment and includes features we've come to expect from the NT family. The latest Windows embedded version, Windows XP Embedded (XPe), goes even further, offering developers more than 10,000 different components, including IE 6.0, WMP8, Windows 2000 Server Terminal Services client, USB support, and SNMP support.

Microsoft developed the NT Embedded and XPe products for slot machines, Windows-based terminals, and other connected devices. XPe proves that Microsoft is capable of producing a modular Windows version, and with XPe, the company makes a compelling case for why a modular Windows version would benefit its customers.

With a modularized version of XP, end users could more easily replace Microsoft components with competing products, if desired. PC makers might negotiate for a lower Windows price and use the savings to make deals with third-party companies for products that compete with Microsoft middleware. This customization could create an interesting scenario in which users buy PCs based on the included features. And IT administrators would have more control over which components are installed on their systems. Heck, even Microsoft comes out ahead if you consider the goodwill such a move would generate, the lifting of its legal problems, and perhaps even increased sales after uncertainty over the company's future plans is removed.

Microsoft has denounced the plan to modularize XP as impossible, stating that the middleware applications in question are integral to Windows and that the plan would simply cause confusion in the marketplace. But the company asked for, and received, a short delay to its remedial hearings, which would have begun this week, so that it could look over the plan more closely.

Microsoft, do us a favor. Give choice back to your customers, and create a modular Windows. You know it's possible, and it would benefit us all. Then you could get back to that innovation you're so fond of touting, innovation that occurs more easily in a truly competitive marketplace.

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