Dateline: Long Beach, California, 4 Nov
Microsoft invited professional developers to a conference to hear senior executives and Bill Himself hold forth on the next generation of Windows.
At stake was the operating environment of the future for the majority of PC users.
So what was the big noise all about? There are three main planks to the next generation of Windows. The first is NT, which, we are told, will only hit 5.0 beta in 1997. New features will include better messaging systems, an 'active server' capability and improved directory services.
NT 5.0 will also integrate more seamlessly with Internet applications.
The new Active Directory will support more than 10 million objects per store, a substantial increase over current capacity. Improved directory management also means NT 5.0 will be more expandable, claims Microsoft.
This shows where the company's ambitions lie. If migrating NT from smaller networks to the enterprise is easier, Microsoft has a whole new source of revenue to play with. It also bolsters its product range in the battle with Novell.
Not that penetrating the enterprise is the only objective for NT. Also on show at the conference was a new ticketing system for the New York subway, which is based on NT.
The machine was encased in a hardened steel case with a bulletproof screen.
It wasn't clear whether this was intended to protect it from New York gang members or from irate commuters 'coping' with a general protection fault while trying to get to work. But as the charismatic Paul Maritz, Microsoft's group vice president, said: 'The number of sockets into which you can sell your products is rising exponentially.' So is NT the network mainstay or a cash machine? Microsoft thinks it's both.
The second plank is the anachronistically named Windows 95. OK, they're calling it Windows 9X, or Memphis but, if the press announcements are anything to go by, the functionality of the revamped system would seem to do justice to its current moniker. Enhanced plug-and-play? Integration with NT? Internet readiness? This begins to look like another Plus pack for the popular OS. Cynics may argue that Microsoft is simply making good on the original promises made for Windows 95.
In fact, Bill Gates almost admitted that the Windows front-end will remain essentially the same for the foreseeable future. On the question of how much further development could go, Gates said: 'The basic elements of the user interface have been completely stable. The next radical change comes with the natural input technologies (such as voice and handwriting recognition). Until then it will be mostly unification of well-known techniques.' Gates' key idea seems to be making the browser the heart of the desktop.
So NT 5.0 and Memphis are essentially upgrades to established technologies.
As reported last month, suite sales are down, and the focus on back-office products and the new operating systems should generate fresh revenue streams for Microsoft. But was there anything radically new announced at the conference?
The audience was eager to hear about the third Windows flavour, the PDA operating system, Windows CE. After all, Gates is on record as identifying the wallet-sized PC as a potentially all-pervasive device. And a smaller Windows OS will be needed if it is to be incorporated in consumer electronics - also a dream of Bill's. After its late entry in to the Internet race, Microsoft, already behind the curve, can't afford to miss the PDA party.
Press and developers were told that machines with either 2Mb or 500Kb of RAM had already been tested (the 3a already has a 2Mb option, but Microsoft wants it to work on smaller platforms). They were also informed that it would be a straightforward cut-down Windows 95 OS with streamlined versions of the popular application packages; and that it would be able to synchronise files with applications on a desktop PC.
Further information is expected at Comdex (see Barometer), and with news of a raft of new personal devices also due to be launched at the Las Vegas show, this particular Windows strategy may pay off. Compaq has teamed up with Casio, for example, to produce a PDA, and CE looks like the ideal OS for the machine.
But far more attention was paid to the NetPC, Gates' answer to the network computer. Gates claimed the NetPC had better support, was more practical and held out hopes for superior performance over the NC. True, the only difference between a standard PC and a NetPC is that the hard disk won't store data or applications. And it won't be expandable internally.
This places the product in a strange sort of halfway house - neither PC nor NC. But that is actually the best platform for Microsoft to exploit.
The NetPC still needs the permanent connection, so the expansion of server, networking and back-office products on which Microsoft is so keen can flourish. It still has no local storage, but what does Microsoft care?
The backup market, for example, belongs to others.
In addition, the NetPC will require an operating system which can use Internet protocols and work with the server software - again a Microsoft strong point. And, of course, it needs applications.
In the same week, an Oracle developers' conference in San Francisco heard Sun's Scott McNealy proclaim that 'our top priority is to kill Microsoft' with the $500 (ish) Sun Java station. He won't be helped by Oracle's Larry Ellison who has agreed to design his own version of the NC around an Intel chip. This gives Microsoft, Intel's biggest ally, a potential foothold.
But Microsoft has other fish to fry, and the hot topics at its conference were cost of ownership, distributed computing and ease of use, although these are the issues which sparked interest in NCs in the first place.
Attention on cost of ownership is welcome and long overdue. Other companies, such as Compaq, have tried to tackle the problem. Microsoft has also had to focus on making PCs cheaper to run or risk giving NC advocates a stick to beat it with.
More favourable running costs should come from advanced plug-and-play for upgrades, and the concept of 'zero admin Windows' (read: 'thin client Windows' - if it works). If the operating system is easier to use, support costs should also fall.
But to make Windows easier to use, Microsoft has opted for yet more customisation.
This may actually exacerbate support problems because IT staff and even Microsoft helpdesks have to deal with a different desktop look for every individual user. It's worth noting that the company is working on an interface that looks and acts like a human to make PCs even more intuitive.
The demonstration featured an Aladdin's genie helping you around a stock market Web site. We hated it. Unfortunately, because Microsoft's avowed intention is Windows in TVs, tumble driers and so on, the dreaded day when your iron tells you to do the collars before the sleeves looms large.
So is the future viewed through the Microsoft window bright? It's not bad. But while Windows 95 saw some big changes, we're really back to the piecemeal alterations that used to mark Windows upgrades. Microsoft is trying to keep up with the trends, and will no doubt make lots of money from NT, Memphis and even CE.
But the vision is, as Bill reminded us, the same as in 1990, when he outlined the 'information at your fingertips' concept. He gave Microsoft a B-minus for progress on that vision.
Whether hardware breakthroughs will allow the company to do anything radical with the desktop and earn an A-plus, only time will tell.
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