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Is Windows Getting Morbidly Obese?

Is Windows Getting Morbidly Obese?

As Microsoft adds new features and complexities to each new version of Windows it creates, the operating system becomes more at risk of collapsing under its own weight, according to two Gartner researchers. The OS has become so big that many low-priced, basic PCs, even if they're brand-new, can't run it well. To solve the problem into the future, Microsoft may need to go back to basics.

By Chris Maxcer
04/11/08 11:33 AM PT

Microsoft Windows is collapsing under its own weight and must radically change for the sake of users, independent software vendors and Microsoft itself, according to research firm Gartner.

Because Microsoft Windows is so large and complex, covering 20 years of legacy code, it can no longer adequately respond to market forces, and Windows needs to be securely redesigned, said Gartner analysts Michael Silver and Neil MacDonald. They delivered the news at the Gartner Symposium/ITxpo 2008 in Las Vegas this week.

"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," the pair reported. "Organizations need to wait for that support and stability and then deal with the enormous task of deployment and management for increasingly nebulous benefits. For Microsoft, its ecosystem and its customers, the situation is untenable."

Complexity Delays Vista Deployment

"In the development of Longhorn (Vista), Microsoft came to the conclusion that Windows had become too big and complex, forcing a reset back to a known good code set based on Windows Server 2003 -- and this is a large part of the reason that Windows Vista delivered primarily incremental improvements," the Gartner analysts noted.

The results, Gartner said, led to an operating system (OS) that wasn't appreciably different from XP to be seen as a must-have upgrade, both for enterprises as well as consumers.

When the OS Isn't Important

A central point to the presentation was the idea that in future application development, the OS will be less and less important. Many applications will be written to be essentially OS-agnostic.

"It's already been happening, so the more you're doing in your browser, the less important any particular OS is. I think today there's still a lot of browser apps that are Windows-specific, that require IE, but there's more and more that are OS-agnostic," Silver told TechNewsWorld, noting that even online applications are now being written with offline capabilities.

"People don't want to run operating systems; they want to run applications," he added.

A key that might help Microsoft, Gartner reported, is to use virtualization Visit the VMware Tech Center as an OS that runs in a hypervisor layer more or less directly over the hardware. Applications could then run virtually, using only a portion of an OS that it needs -- reducing the need for an OS like Vista to be everything to every possible application.

It's a complicated subject, of course, and Gartner noted that even with virtualization, the architecture becomes a complicating factor.

Catching Up With Hardware

Another key point made by Gartner's presentation is that Windows Vista is simply too big for the hardware out and about in the world. Increasingly, PC manufacturers have been delivering low-cost desktops and, more recently, low-cost laptops. To keep the costs down, manufacturers haven't been shipping as many systems with the fastest graphics processors, fastest microprocessors, or with faster or more memory.

"A weird sort of thing happened. As Microsoft has been working over the years, they've never had to worry too much about how big the operating system was getting because hardware was getting more powerful and people were always buying the latest and greatest hardware. ... But somewhere around the time that Vista happened, it seems like they overreached -- they designed for more hardware than people were willing to purchase -- or the mood of the consumer changed so that people would purchase these low-cost machines," Michael Cherry, an analyst for Directions on Microsoft, told TechNewsWorld.

"It may be too strong to say 'collapsing under its own weight,' but this gamble that the hardware would always be there that was capable of running it at a low price, they may have to rethink that ... and they may have to start paying much more attention to the resources that the operating system uses rather than concentrating on the features they want to add," he said.

Is Gartner on Target?

"I think they've put forward an interesting premise, and I think they raise some valid concerns and provide some evidence that it's gotten very, very big, and it seems to be, from a development perspective moving forward, incredibly unwieldily," Cherry noted.

One of the big questions is how Microsoft's next version of Windows, Windows 7, might address some of Gartner's key points -- if at all.

"What we don't know about 7 is what, really, their plans are. After Vista and all of the problems they've had, announcing features and then cutting features, and then announcing things, and then having to back off, they've been far quieter with 7, but I think there's some speculation we can do," Cherry said.

"You're seeing some people discuss that they're going to do a new kernel or make massive changes, and I think it's going to be much more likely that it'll be more like what Microsoft has been doing with server," he explained, noting that the Server version comes out with a major release, followed by a minor release, then major again -- which seems to be working well for customers and Microsoft.

"I expect 7 to be a follow-up that makes some minor changes to things they really want to tune with Vista," he said.

New Lightweight Versions on the Way?

In October, a Microsoft engineer, Eric Traut, described something called "MinWin," a new 25 MB core piece of an operating system which may or may not be part of Windows 7. Might Microsoft be actively working on a new lightweight version of an OS?

Cherry isn't so sure. "It's hard to say, but it seems like with Vista an awful lot of work went into creating five different versions that nobody can differentiate between. It also seems as if they've been squeezing more things into the operating system that frankly are not operating system features -- they are applications. I think we could get down to three versions -- a version for consumers and gamers, businesses and server," he explained.

"I don't know if MinWin will really become a product, but it does show that Microsoft sees that simplification and size reduction is important," Silver said.

No Black Hole Yet

If a star collapses under its own weight, it becomes a black hole, but Microsoft Windows is at least a few years away from any such catastrophe.

"This [collapse] is really a long-term view -- it's not something that would happen overnight. For the medium term, for the next five to seven years, Windows will still play an important role," Silver added.

"Microsoft can't afford to dump windows -- there's still a lot of legacy they have to worry about. The market is important around Windows for the next 10 years, so we don't see it collapsing imminently ... but we think it's important that Microsoft has some changes in their plan if they want to remain competitive," he noted.


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