Ballmer promises a new user interface, a new file system, and a natural-language capability in the Next Generation Windows Services. The technology builds on the current Windows operating system, but Microsoft officials describe it as a drastic change equivalent to Windows' effect on the text-based DOS world of 1985, when the graphical operating system first shipped.
Microsoft plans to host NGWS on the Internet and integrate it with upcoming versions of Windows CE, SQL Server, Windows 2000, and Windows 2000 Server.
"We need to deliver a breakthrough version of Windows and actually host it on the Internet," Ballmer says. Besides jiving with Microsoft's recent interest in application software providers that host Web applications, the company is continuing its "Windows everywhere" philosophy with NGWS.
We need to make the [operating system] more reliable and scalable," Ballmer says. "The PC will be the most powerful devices, but so will the phone, and pocket PC."
But amid the management shakeup, it seems the new product development announcements Thursday may have less to do with e-commerce and the power of the Internet and more to do with the recent merger of America Online and Time Warner.
"One needs only raise a finger and point to the AOL/Time Warner merger to understand," says Martin Marshall, research director at Zona Research. "Microsoft has known for some time the importance of content, and now Gates wants to personally push that strategy forward and do something about it."
Ballmer, however, declares that Windows on the Web has been a longtime vision for the company, not necessarily sparked by the recent merger.
"The truth of the matter is, our business is focused on software and we don't need a mega-merger to get that done," he says. "Five years ago, the Internet became the top priority in the things that we are doing. Today, we see ourselves at that same inflection point, where the nature of the platform, the way that it works, the way that people develop these applications, all of these [things] we need to bring some breakthrough technology to."
With Ballmer at the helm, Gates will have more time to develop products hands-on, Marshall says.
"For the last couple years, Gates has missed getting to do the geeky stuff and play with toys," he says. "And now he gets to become chief geek."
There may be a darker reason why Gates has been swept out of the limelight and back into his programming roots, suggests Jeff Tartar, editor of Softletter, an industry newsletter.
"If you listen to the antitrust testimony, Steve Ballmer never pops up in incriminating e-mails or talks about annihilating the competition," Tartar says. "It's almost as if Steve wasn't there. But you can't get out of an antitrust suit by changing titles on office doors."