Windows' Days May Be Numbered

Microsoft's new OS, Midori, is being designed from the ground up to be a distributed operating system running on top of multiple hardware systems and virtual machines.

Could Microsoft be switching away from Windows?

Some very interesting documents have been leaking out of Microsoft. They clearly indicate, believe it or not, that Microsoft is considering shifting its users from Windows to a new operating system: Midori.

And, when I say "new," I mean new. This isn't the kind of lip-service change that we saw with David Cutler and NT or Jim Allchin and Vista. Midori, under Eric Rudder, senior vice president for technical strategy, isn't a cosmetic change; it's a completely new operating system.

Midori is being designed from the ground up to be a distributed operating system running on top of multiple hardware systems and virtual machines. That's one heck of a change from what has always been a single-user operating system designed for a stand-alone PC.

That design is a big reason why Windows is the insecure mess that has kept Symantec, McAfee and dozens of other anti-malware companies in business for decades. Despite that, Microsoft has never dared to change Windows too much, because it has been a cash cow. Now, things seem to be changing.

No one would dare let me enter the halls of the Microsoft campus, so I can only imagine that Midori started as a skunkworks project. Its purpose was probably to try out some ideas. That kind of project gets started all the time in major technology companies. Most of them amount to little. Why would Midori take on a life of its own?

I think it's because Vista's dismal market performance really shocked Microsoft. The company has had plenty of other failures ? Microsoft Bob quickly comes to mind -- but Vista is a failure of epic proportions. The reason both Mac OS and Linux are gaining ground on Windows is that people are rejecting Vista (much as I'd like to give the credit to their advantages).

Now, you may not believe that the Linux desktop or the Mac is really taking market share from Windows, but they are. In the U.K., Linux was preinstalled on 2.9 percent of all PCs sold in June. Meanwhile, 14 percent of all PCs sold in the U.S. are Macs. People are no longer mindlessly buying Windows systems, and Microsoft knows that.

The company has tried to con -- uh, convince -- people that Vista really is a good operating system, with its painful Mojave Experiment Web site. The site crashed Safari on my MacBook Pro and wouldn't render on Firefox on my openSUSE Linux PC. When I finally did get it to show up on an XP SP3 system, I was told it was my fault that I was having trouble with Vista. That's a surefire way to make me want to buy Vista.

Windows has had a long run, too long really. It can't be twisted into an operating system that can handle a world where processing power may be on the desktop or in a cloud, and where networking is a given. Microsoft needs something different.

But can it be serious about dropping Windows? I think it is. Vista has been a wake-up call that the company can't simply keep reinventing the same old thing. At the same time, Microsoft knows, of course, that it can't afford to alienate its customers, so the plan is to include Windows legacy support by way of virtualization. This path should enable Microsoft to provide the outstanding legacy application support it will need to keep end users happy.

Having said all this, do I think Microsoft will actually follow through? Not for a while, if at all. I can't see Midori coming out before 2013. The real question is, will Steve Ballmer make it happen? I can't see it. I can't hold the word vision and Ballmer in my head at the same time. If Microsoft changes management, Midori will turn into reality. If he stays in charge, we'll be seeing Windows 7 SP1 or, as I prefer to think of it, Vista SP4.

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been writing about technology and the business of technology since CP/M-80 was cutting edge and 300bit/sec. was a fast Internet connection -- and we liked it! He can be reached at sjvn@vna1.com.

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