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Will X-Box win (X) Windows Everywhere for MS?

The latest thing may cut a path through the OS strategy mess

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Analysis US reports earlier this week claimed that Microsoft has been busily stripping LAN features from its forthcoming consumer operating system, Windows Millennium Edition (WME), thus forcing corporate users to migrate to Win2k instead. But we shouldn't be surprised - in reality, the move simply illustrates that Microsoft's OS strategy is still in a state of flux. The major problem lies on the extremely blurred borders between business and consumer software, and the appearance of X-Box on the horizon has muddied the waters further. One clear element of Microsoft's current policy is that Win2k is the 'official' business OS, so there's clearly no long-term place for a Win9x-derived operating system (i.e., WME) in business, and the wonderful world of Active Directory will consequently exclude WME. This will cause problems for companies whose employees do some telecommuting, using their own Win9x home machines or company portables to access the company network. In these cases they'll just have to upgrade, the company will foot the bill, and more money will roll into Microsoft's coffers, right? Possibly - but the cost could well be viewed as too great this time around, and the logic of presenting business as a Win2k-only world collapses horribly when you consider what else Microsoft is doing in the field. Essentially, the Win2k-only concept and WME are both leftovers from previous MS strategies. The company is busily trying to get mobile phones and CE devices accepted as natural ways to connect to the company network, and via Terminal Server and the good offices of Citrix it's perfectly feasible to be connecting non-Microsoft platforms too. So by making it hard for WME to connect, Microsoft is effectively saying that WME is a Win9x holdover that it wishes would go away as fast as possible. And this is where X-Box comes in, complicating matters some more (potentially, a lot more). So far X-Box has been pitched as a great games machine, but the spec, target market and expected price range make it clear it's something else as well - if Microsoft has its way, it'll be a ubiquitous home games and connectivity appliance. It won't be running Win9x derivatives either, so it can also be seen as another way of Microsoft saying it wishes WME would go away, but that's by the by. From a software perspective the salient points of X-Box are DirectX and what Microsoft describes as the Win2k kernel stripped right down to the minimum. We'd interpret that as meaning a largely new kernel (last year Bill Gates said a new kernel would follow the Win2k launch), and a largely new operating system as well. Aside from the games capability it will need Web browsing, and various bits of productivity. It is after all intended as an Internet-capable broadband device, and people are therefore going to want to do more with it than just play games. So you could look at it this way - X-Box is a route that allows Microsoft to build a new, efficient (we use the term optimistically) operating system that abandons the old compatibility baggage that's been holding up development for so many years. And as Microsoft controls the hardware and the software, it can integrate the whole shebang while it's about it. Bets, please, on how long it takes the DoJ to notice this. X-Box ought to be a lot easier to build than the on-off converging operating systems of the past, and it ought also to be attractive, compelling and cheap. But if you can get a cheap games-playing box that gives you broadband Internet access, what do you want as well? (apart from a portable one, that is - you read it here first) Microsoft should be able to differentiate between business Win2k machines and X-Box type games appliances, but it'll likely have trouble sustaining a separate home/games PC platform, even if it attempts to pursue one. By trying to rev Win9x further after WME it would be to some extent duplicating X-Box efforts, and it has already been going vague on future consumer versions of Win2k, describing the next rev, Whistler, as being aimed at the "professional" market. So maybe X-Box is it - the Microsoft-owned device in every home, every hotel room? X-Windows Everywhere? Neat - unfortunately we believe somebody has that one already. But if X-Box works, and that happens, it'll make it even more obvious that the old-style Windows-only approach being pursued via Win2k doesn't work. We all knew that already, of course. ® Related stories: X-Box unleashed Intel snatches X-Box victory MS roadmaps Blackcomb, plans beta of Win2k rev

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