Saturday, April 22, 2006

Will Vista Be the Last Operating System Microsoft Produces?

Here's a thought-provoking article from Apple Matters that raises some good points. If MS continues to more and more time to release new operting systems, 7+ years and counting by the time Service Pack 1 for Vista is released, one wonders if there is an opportunity for Apple Mac OS and Linux to make inroads. Rumour has it that Google is also developing a web-based OS, which sounds baffling. I plan to write more about the concept of a web-based operating system and its implications. Someone has suggested that the next killer app will the the desktop web server. Sounds again like the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Will Vista Be the Last Operating System Microsoft Produces?

by James R. Stoup
Apr 21, 2006

I don’t think Microsoft will ship another Operating System after Vista launches. I believe that a combination of technical difficulties and changing markets will prevent it from creating a product that is relevant in the market. Consider this, if the latest shipping dates are to be believed, it will have taken Microsoft over six years to get Windows Vista out the door and to its consumers. And based on past events, it is safe to assume that Vista will require at least one service pack before it is truly ready for use. Of course, factoring in the normal Microsoft delays for producing patches, such a comprehensive service pack will probably take another year before it can be released to users. That would mean that it will have taken Microsoft 7+ years to make a usable operating system.

Now consider how long it could take Microsoft to produce Vista’s successor. If the added complexity of this new OS increases the development time by only 25% (not an unreasonable figure) of what it took to make Vista, then it will have been in development for almost 8 years. That means if Vista comes out in 2007, it won’t be replaced until 2015. To put that into perspective, if Apple continues on with its release cycle of OS X (and factoring in increases in development time) they could, counting Leopard, release 4 to 5 new operating systems by the time Microsoft releases one.

But keeping up with Apple won’t be Microsoft’s biggest concern. What will prevent Microsoft from releasing another OS is the changing market. For Vista’s successor to have a hope of selling, the company has to assume that no fundamental shifts in technology will occur for almost a decade! That seems, overly optimistic at best. With Google threatening to release a web-based OS, and Apple potentially using virtualization to run all Windows applications, Microsoft might find that by the time it can cobble something together, it no longer has a market interested in its product.

Microsoft will find itself in this position (or one like it) all too soon, and it has no one but itself to blame. Here are the two biggest factors that are slowly killing Microsoft from within.

Code base
The amount of code that makes up Windows has simply become too large to work with. Now, you can blame this on anything you want (backwards compatibiliy would be high on my list), but ultimately the cause doesn’t matter. What matters is that building new features has become impossible, and debugging this mess has become impossible + 1. This was most clearly witnessed when Bill Gates got up onstage and informed his eager audience that the codebase for Vista had become so large and tangled that they simply had to throw it all away and start over from a point they knew was stable. Guess what? That problem isn’t going to go away by throwing another service pack at it. With each version of Windows released the amount of code grows and the strain gets greater. However, the amount of code isn’t the only problem here. The structure of the OS itself is fundamentally flawed. There are too many antiquated ideas (drive letters, the registry, etc.) and constraining bounds (NTFS) to allow for anymore growth. A drastic rewrite is the only way to solve this problem. The only real question Microsoft needs to ask is how much should we rewrite?

The last few years has seen a flurry of restructuring at Microsoft. Key people have left (most noticably for Google) and even loyal employees who still believe the hype have begun to criticize management and air their grievances on personal blogs. The leadership of Microsoft has failed miserably and Vista is only the beginning in what looks to be an impressive series of embarrassments. It is time for a change. If Microsoft still hopes to be in the OS market a decade from now then those changes can’t come soon enough.

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