In-depth analysis: Future of Windows still in flux

I received a lot of feedback from my mention in 'Short Takes' about the cancellation of Neptune and Odyssey in lieu of a combined project dubbed "Whistler." Neptune, you may recall, has been alternatively described as the version of Consumer Windows to follow Millennium, the OS that would have been Windows NT 6.0, and even as a set of user interface enhancements to Windows based on HTML. Each of these descriptions is somewhat correct, but it's easiest to think of Neptune as what would have been Consumer Windows. Odyssey, meanwhile, was the previous codename to what would have been the next Business Windows, that is, the direct successor to Windows 2000. Sources close to Microsoft expressed their amazement that I had even found out about the plans to drop Neptune and Odyssey as the internal communications about replacing these projects with "Whistler" are marked as "Extreme Microsoft Internal," normally reserved for the company's most sensitive information. Well, now that the cat's out of the bag, so to speak, it's time to take a look at where Windows will be headed now that Microsoft has finally shipped Windows 2000.

Several readers informed me that a project dubbed "Whistler" already exists within Microsoft. And this is true; Microsoft has been working on a speech to text translator project dubbed Whistler, along with a speech recognition engine called "Whisper," for some time now. But don't be confused about this seemingly unrelated set of projects: It seems that Whistler's capabilities have indeed been spun into the next major version of Windows.

While Microsoft's various Windows teams, both consumer and business, have at times worked separately and together to complete their respective operating systems, it seems that the groups will finally be melded together with Whistler. Previously, the Neptune team was working on a project that simply added new user interface and ease-of-use features to Windows 2000 Professional. The goal was to create a consumer operating system, based on Windows 2000, which was simple enough for any home user. Meanwhile, the project that would have been called Odyssey was being planned separately as a major follow-up to Windows 2000. That is, it was being designed as a new version of Windows for business users only.

I'm not sure what forces were involved in bringing these two projects together. The recent reorganization might have had something to do with it. Some have argued that the rise of Steve Ballmer to the CEO role might have played a part. No matter: The decision was made to combine Neptune and Odyssey into Whistler. Sources tell me that Microsoft wants to provide a great computing experience for the business end user, building on Windows 2000 Professional, while providing a similar experience for home users along with improved compatibility, user interface enhancements, and other improvements by moving them to the Windows 2000 code base. Logically, it does make sense for Neptune and Odyssey to be combined or unified into a single development effort, much like Professional and Server were during the Windows 2000 beta. That way, each target audience will gain the benefits of improvements designed for the other. For example, business users will get the Neptune user interface improvements that make sense for that market while home users will benefit from the reliability and scalability improvements that Microsoft adds post-Windows 2000.

Another little tidbit about this combined Odyssey/Neptune operating system comes to us courtesy of Beta News, which discovered a revealing job posting on the Microsoft Web site. Microsoft is looking for a software engineer that can design and develop a new "basic \[user interface\] framework for \[Windows 2000 that will\] provide modern UI features." This new user interface will be the foundation for the "next-generation Window Manager \[a.k.a. USER\], which will allow easily extensible UI look, feel and behavior." Additionally, this new UI manager will allow for different user interfaces to be plugged into Windows 2000, interfaces that are designed separately from the OS. Needless to say, this is an important part of the puzzle as Microsoft could easily create different user interfaces for its consumer and business editions of Windows. For more information, visit the Microsoft Jobs Web site.

While the combination of Neptune and Odyssey is indeed big news, there are other, more immediate, happenings in the post-Windows 2000 world. The first Service Pack for Windows 2000 (codenamed "Asteroid") will ship by June 2000, and be included in the fourth edition of Windows 2000, known as DataCenter Server. Windows 2000 SP1 will be made available as a free download via the Microsoft Web site and will be much smaller than any of the NT 4.0 Service Packs, as it will contain only the most critical fixes, and not any added fluff. And, as promised, SP1 will be slipstreamable into Windows 2000 install points, allowing new installations of the OS to automatically include all of the fixes in SP1. For a preview of this slipstreaming feature, check out the 128-bit encryption add-on for Windows 2000, which is auto-installable in the same way.

On the Consumer Windows front, Microsoft trudges ahead with yet another version of Windows 98, currently codenamed "Millennium," that will hold the fort until Whistler ships. Expect this release of Windows 98, which will probably be called "Windows 98 Millennium Edition" when it ships, to add a few minor enhancements but not much else. Millennium has gained much of the Windows 2000 user interface, including the color scheme, personalized menus, and general look and feel, while retaining the mixed bag of Windows 98 internals. In other words, Millennium is simply Windows 98 with a pretty new face. Minor updates include a new TCP/IP stack, a System Restore feature, silent installation of USB keyboards, mice, and hubs, a Movie Maker application for recording, editing, publishing, and organizing audio and video content, the removal of Real Mode DOS, and a number of other small improvements. It's unclear whether Millennium will be sold at retail; I've heard rumors that this one might be an OEM release, designed for inclusion on new PCs only. At any rate, it's not the next big thing that people expected when it was announced last summer, but it does fulfill the goal of updating Consumer Windows once a year. Until Microsoft can figure out a way to get consumers to "subscribe" to Windows and keep the money rolling in, this is the only way to maximize profits from a product that is nearing the end of its life cycle.

So there you have it. The future of Windows is in constant flux and anything and everything I've written here could change at any time. But at this moment in time, Neptune and Odyssey have been combined into a project that will eventually benefit all users of Windows. Pretty cool, if you ask me.


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