Midnight Madness opened the official launch day for Windows 98, while launch events in San Francisco and, remotely, other parts of the world kicked off the swan song for the Windows line of operating systems. When Windows 95 was released in August 1995, it was a somewhat amazing meld of legacy 16-bit code with the 32-bit Win32 API, allowing the OS to run Windows 3.1 apps, DOS apps, and Windows NT apps. Now, with Windows 98, the circle is complete: The new WDM driver model--common to both Windows 98 and Windows NT 5.0--is not based on Windows, it's NT-based, and a new set of DLLs in Windows 98 provides even more compatibility with Windows NT. Yet Windows 98, like Windows 95 before, is really a pseudo-32-bit operating system. Legacy subsystems, designed with backwards compatibility in mind, prevent Windows 98 from achieving the security and stability of NT. Still, it's better than Windows 95 in this regard, and it's a great upgrade.
But what's next?
The only certainty at this point is that the Windows 3.x/9x line of operating systems is dead. Microsoft has been telling developers for over two years that the successor to Windows 98 would be a consumer version of Windows NT, which will not feature backwards compatibility with DOS and many 16-bit Windows apps. Though no name has been chosen--Windows 2000, Windows Pro, and Windows NT Consumer Edition have been tossed around--the version of NT that will replace Windows 98 is still 3-4 years away. And NT itself still faces another major upgrade--version 5.0--before this transition takes place. It seems likely that a consumer version of Windows NT 6.0 will strip away some of NT's consumer-unfriendly services such as the security subsystem, but this is still pretty much in the planning stages.
At the Windows 98 launch event Thursday, Bill Gates referred to Windows 98 as the starting point for the next three years, a foundation that other developers will use to build applications. In some ways that's true, but Windows 98 is really the end game in product line that has pretty much lived out its usefulness. Sure, there will be small upgrades to 98 over the next few years, but the next major release will be NT. Whether NT is worthy--or capable--of carrying on the mass market success of Windows is debatable, but one thing is certain: NT will be your next operating system