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Does Windows Need an Extreme Makeover

Is Windows Vista too complex for its own good?

That's the claim -- made last week by analysts at research firm Gartner -- that has Microsoft watchers debating about what, if anything, needs to be done about the future of the OS.

During the Gartner Symposium/ITxpo 2008 conference in Las Vegas last week, Gartner vice presidents Michael Silver and Neil MacDonald said that Windows Vista signifies that the client OS has finally grown so massively unweidly that it may soon collapse under its own weight.

"Microsoft needs to keep making Windows do things it was never designed to do, while continuing to support nearly 20 years of legacy," Silver and MacDonald said in their presentation. "It takes Microsoft too long to introduce new versions of Windows, and once a new version is released, it takes significant time for the 'ecosystem' to support it and for the release to stabilize."

"Windows must change radically for the sake of users, ISVs and Microsoft," they added.

The comments continue an industry-wide discussion in the wake of the launch of Windows Vista, which has been widely criticized for its hefty system requirements and, according to some reports, sluggish performance.

However, at least two other analysts don't agree with Silver and MacDonald's interpretation, arguing that there are other facets to evaluate as well.

"I don't think the problem with 'over-accessorized' software began with Vista," Charles King, principal analyst at researcher Pund-IT, King said he doesn't necessarily believe that Windows will "collapse" under the weight of Vista -- although for many users, the new OS may simply turn out to be overkill.

"Today, it's the equivalent of handing a soccer mom the keys to a Ferrari to take the kids back and forth to school," he added.

Michael Cherry, lead analyst for operating systems at researcher Directions on Microsoft, had a different take as well.

"I don't disagree with the premise that [Vista] has gotten to be a very large piece of code, but I think we may be talking about this the wrong way," Cherry "There's only a small group of people who really care about an operating system for the sake of an operating system," he said, adding that he does not necessarily see Vista as Microsoft's Achilles heel.

"However, I think [Silver and MacDonald] are right that this backwards-compatibility issue is a growing problem," Cherry added. "Do you really need to run Lotus 1-2-3 any longer?"

Slimming down

Despite their criticism, Gartner's analysts did offer some suggestions for improving Windows.

First, some of the shorter-term issues might be at least ameliorated by taking advantage of virtualization hypervisors, like Microsoft's upcoming Hyper-V system, to run legacy applications inside virtual machines or VMs, they said.

By running legacy apps in a virtualized environment, the code for backwards compatibility could be stripped out of Vista's successor, codenamed "Windows 7."

"Our view is that we are slowly moving away from monolithic platforms, with a single OS controlling all the hardware, to an integrated platform in which multiple OSes ... coordinate the use of the hardware and management of the applications," the Gartner presentation said.

Another way to simplify Windows -- as well as to shrink the code base -- would be to take a compartmentalized design route, similar to Windows Server 2008, which shipped last month.

That release features what Microsoft terms "server core," which enables an administrator to install only those code modules -- functions such as Web serving, for instance -- that are needed for that specific server.

"A more modular approach is needed to allow user-specific information to be separated from the OS and easily moved from one PC to another," the Gartner presentation said. "This would facilitate mobile users, roaming users, portable personality and easier upgrading to new versions -- a goal close to Microsoft's heart."

Users and IT shops shouldn't expect that Windows 7 will offer a significantly altered design, Cherry said.

One reason is that because it is scheduled for delivery sometime in 2010, there's not much time for making big changes in the code base. Indeed, Windows 7 has been characterized by Microsoft executives as a relatively minor update compared to Vista.

"I think it's reasonable to think of [Windows 7] as equivalent to what they did with R2 [Release 2] for Windows Server 2003," Cherry said. "It cannot support a re-architecting of Windows in that timeframe."

Additionally, Cherry doubts that Windows Server 2008's Hyper-V (or another virtualization hypervisor) would provide an adequate solution to the problems of running legacy applications.

One thing that all the analysts agreed on, however, is that the PC market has significantly grown more complex in recent years, with systems achieving a level of performance that many users simply don't need.

Additionally, the growing success of new form factors and devices, such as smartphones and ultra low-cost PCs (ULCPCs), is spawning the demand for operating systems tailored to the device.

One example of that was the announcement earlier this month that Microsoft would continue to make Windows XP Home Edition available to run on ULCPCs. Those devices are expected to be very popular, not only in emerging economies but also in developed nations, as users add cheap laptops to their existing home and work networks.

"There are some fundamental changes going on in the consumer space but also in enterprises to move away from high-powered computers to smaller, lighter, less-expensive devices," Pund-IT's King said.

In spite of their criticism of Windows Vista, however, Silver and MacDonald also are not advocating that corporate users put off migrating until Windows 7 comes out.

"[In the] next 12 months ... proceed with Windows Vista deployments; the earliest Microsoft could deliver against this vision is 2010," the Gartner presentation concluded.

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