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Is Neptune at the Center of Microsoft Consumer Push?

At the 1998 WinHec event, Microsoft Corp chairman Bill Gates told developers that Windows 98 would be the last Microsoft operating system to use the old Windows kernel, which still includes major elements of MS-DOS. He was wrong, however. Because it couldn't risk abandoning full compatibility with older Windows applications, Microsoft had greater difficulty getting rid of DOS than it thought.

By this year's WinHec event in March, Microsoft had admitted that it would be releasing a consumer "Second Edition" upgrade for Windows 98 (due out later this year) and a follow-up consumer edition, codenamed Millennium, for next year. Both will still be using the current Window 9X kernel. Millennium is expected to have faster bootup times and better graphics support than current versions of Windows. Beyond that, Microsoft is gradually leaking out bits of information about its first version of Consumer Windows that will use the NT kernel. The codename most associated with that effort is Neptune.

The early reports about Neptune have been somewhat confused. Officially, Microsoft admits somewhat vaguely that "something called Neptune is happening" and that it "will be launched some time in the future." Unofficially, it has begun to leak. Earlier reports just used the Neptune codename for "Windows 2001" but Microsoft, without officially commenting, started making it plain that it thought of Neptune as a set of component-based features and functions designed to simplify Windows for consumers, running alongside other related efforts, such as Universal Plug and Play and the OnNow "instant on" technology, which aims to eliminate the lengthy boot time startup sessions currently associated with Wintel PCs.

In May, Microsoft invited BusinessWeek in to advertise its new corporate set-up under cover star Steve Ballmer. The company told BusinessWeek that since 1997, top engineers such as Steve Capps and Joe Belfiore had "been crafting an overhaul of the Windows user interface." The idea, it said was "to offer computing novices a choice of activities ranging from writing a letter to balancing their checkbook - all laid out in simple icons." In the same month, Microsoft senior VP Jim Allchin, now head of the Business and Enterprise unit, was widely quoted as saying that post Windows-2000 operating system releases would concentrate on simplifying the operating system from the user's point of view, adding manageability, user interface enhancements, and more sophisticated multi-tasking.

Both Microsoft and its hardware partner Intel Corp agree that in order to continue high growth in the PC industry, more first time buyers need to be attracted. Over the last few years, the proportion of new PC buyers measured against the total number of PC sales had remained steady at around 20%, with the rest coming from the repeat business of "smart" buyers. Even the shift towards cheaper, low-end PCs hadn't done much to change those figures. Inspired by Apple, Intel is working on some new PC hardware designs. Later this year, both Intel and Microsoft plan a series of ease of use announcements to get the process rolling.

More recently, however, Neptune's focus has shifted once again. The latest intelligence suggests that Neptune technologies will move beyond the desktop PC and find their way into other devices, such as set-top boxes, home networks and audio-visual consumer devices, operated through TV-based applications for home use. Microsoft is already pushing its existing CE and WebTV technology into the consumer application space, and where these might fit in is not immediately clear. Everything, of course, will be web-enabled, and Microsoft is likely to use its MSN service for hosting and online services.
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Publication:Computergram International
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 9, 1999
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