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Opinion: Windows 7 may be Microsoft's last big-bang operating system

January 26, 2009 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - As I write this, Microsoft is expected to release the long-awaited Beta 1 of Windows 7. Those who try it out should savor it. It may be the last "big bang" OS from Microsoft, with future Windows versions delivered as a series of lightweight, changeable, modular components rather than as entirely new operating systems.

Why the change? With broadband approaching ubiquity and Web-based applications growing dramatically, there's no longer a need for big, do-it-all operating systems that demand fast CPUs and powerful graphics processors. If you run your applications primarily via the Web, there's no need for all of the overhead that operating systems like Windows Vista require.

Windows 7 will be a big-bang operating system, but it nods to Windows' future. Microsoft consciously made it capable of being run on less demanding hardware than Windows Vista. It will be able to run on inexpensive, lightweight, RAM-light and processor-light netbooks. Moreover, Microsoft has stripped out important components, including Windows Mail, Windows Photo Gallery, Windows Movie Maker and a variety of other applets. They'll be available via download at Windows Live.

It's easy to imagine a future in which the core of Windows is very slim so it can run on a variety of networked devices. So, for example, the base configuration of Windows might be able to run cloud-based applications, such as an online version of Microsoft Office or Windows Live Mail -- or Google Docs and Gmail, for that matter. Those with netbooks might use only this core.

Enterprises that use internally developed Web-based applications might opt for the core plus additional components that let users run their standard applications. These apps could be run on inexpensive desktop PCs, which would be little more than terminals with hard disks and some processing power.

Consumers, on the other hand, might want a far more fully featured operating system with a graphics subsystem capable of running games, 3-D simulations and more. They would get the base operating system plus additional, heavier components.

Windows would become a constantly evolving operating system, with new components continually released. Users would not have to wait several years for new features to be added when the next big-bang operating system comes along. They could upgrade as soon as a new component became available.

Microsoft would not just sell the core of the operating system, but it would also charge for each component -- a very solid business model, particularly if Microsoft were to sell subscriptions so that all new components were automatically installed.

Will Microsoft actually go in this direction? Signs indicate that it might. Its Windows Live lineup of downloadable applications is reaching critical mass and may well be the model for how the company distributes Windows components in the future. It has also announced that it will release online versions of Microsoft Office, possibly including free, ad-supported versions. So in essence, it's already doing to Microsoft Office what it might do to Windows itself.

For several years, there's been talk within Microsoft about "MinWin," a small, stripped-down kernel of Windows that might form the core of future operating systems. There have also been rumors that Google is working on a Google operating system, built using its Android operating system for mobile phones and Google Gears, which is used to allow Web-based applications such as Google Docs to work offline.

A Google OS would be Microsoft's worst nightmare. And Microsoft will have to do something to confront that possibility.

What does all this add up to? A modular future for Windows, where you pay a small fee for the base operating system, then additional fees for components, with some components available for free. So go ahead and try Windows 7 when it comes out. It may well be the last operating system of its kind.

Preston Gralla is a contributing editor for Computerworld.com and the author of more than 35 books, including How the Internet Works (Que, 2006).

Read more about Operating Systems in Computerworld's Operating Systems Topic Center.



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