End of the Line for Windows?

Considering Microsoft's track record on security, spyware, and hubris, its announcement of the next version of Windows (code-named Longhorn) doesn't bode well.

Microsoft is making a lot of noise about the next version of Windows. Considering the companys track record on security, spyware, creativity, and hubris, this doesnt bode well. The upcoming Windows is code-named Longhorn, after a bar in the resort town of Whistler, British Columbia. We start right off with FUD and misinformation. In explaining the name, Microsoft told the media that the Longhorn is a "rowdy" bar—as though there were some rebellious undercurrent at Microsoft. Get real. Whistler is a ritzy ski resort town for yuppies. The Longhorn was named the number-one ski bar in Canada by Snow Country magazine. Lively and rowdy are not the same thing.

The reality distortion gets worse. Heres how the Longhorn go-to guy, Jim Allchin, reacted at a recent Microsoft conference to a comment about Google: "Googles a very nice system, but compared to my vision its pathetic." I shudder to think what Microsoft thinks is cool, when it fails to recognize the elegance of Google. Can we expect MSN and its hodgepodge of teenage clutter? Probably.

Allchin also hints that Longhorn will be written from scratch. Nobody believes this, of course, but can you imagine if it were true? The product wouldnt come out until 2010—if then. Look how long Microsoft took to bring out the "from scratch" OS Windows NT. Back then, it had DEC superstar David Cutler, along with secret help from IBM. And evidence has arisen that IBM code—in addition to code from FreeBSD—peppers Windows 2000 and XP.

I doubt that building an OS from scratch is even possible nowadays, so Microsoft will be lifting whatever it can. The problem is that if you piece together odds and ends, the inner workings of the OS cant be fully understood. So Allchins other claim—that security will be the top consideration—cant be accomplished. You cant make something secure when you dont know how it works. Besides, Microsoft cant make a completely secure product, because nobody can. But there are degrees of security, and Microsofts patch-of-the-day situation must be addressed. And with Microsofts big-shot claims about security, whom will the hackers immediately target?

The worst thing is that Microsoft seems to be on the right track with Windows 2000 and XP. They are more solid than anything thats come before and are comfortable to use. The crashing problems have been minimized; all Microsoft needs to do is sit down and optimize the code. Why mouth off about a new "from scratch" OS when people are finally getting what they want—stability?

Perhaps the reason is that Microsoft cannot stabilize itself. It cant say, "Wow, we own the OS and office software business. Lets make those products better than anything out there." Instead, it spends resources on WebTV, MSN, and its hopelessly inept cell-phone OS. Who knows how much money it will sink into its .NET products while winners such as PowerPoint languish?

Microsoft should model itself after Adobe, which is aggressively improving Photoshop even though the competition has long since vanished. When Microsoft sees the competition wane, it immediately thinks "cash cow" and coasts. Meanwhile, the tortoises of open-source keep inching ahead.

Finally, theres the growing issue of spyware. Although Microsoft has been pretty liberal with its licenses regarding the activation of Win XP and Office XP, I see this ending soon. Allchin says Longhorn will update itself automatically; apparently, no questions will be asked. Where does this lead?

Microsoft has been a big booster of UCITA, the horrid law that would give a software company the right to spy on your machine and shut it down remotely. Now we hear that at least one research company in Germany has determined that Microsoft is collecting extraneous information during the upgrade and error-reporting process. This fear was given credence in a recent vigilante attack by the Business Software Alliance (otherwise known as the Microsoft police) on the University of Muenster. According to The Inquirer (UK): "In a letter to the Uni, [the BSA] said its system detected the OpenOffice files as Microsoft Office programs." Exactly what "system" are we talking about?

The target date for Longhorn is 2005, but Allchin says hes not holding fast to any dates. Thats the good news. Take your time, Jim. Maybe this will all go away.

Discuss this article in the forum.

More John Dvorak: