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NexGen Windows – has the trial derailed it for keeps?

Right now it's just a delay, but without a radical recast, cancellation looms

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Microsoft has issued a last minute cancellation of its Next Generation Windows Services (NGWS) announcement, which was scheduled for June 1st. Several times already the company has put back the date when it will put some flesh on the bones of the project it has described as comparable in cost and ambition to the development of the Boeing 747 and NASA's lunar programme, but this time it could be serious. NGWS now seems poised on the brink of disappearing into a legal morass which could last months, even years.

Microsoft's problem is that the new platform is a victim of timescales and technological approach. Since the company announced the (provisional) name at the beginning of this year, a verdict from the judge that would effectively block its construction has been imminent, and that's not going to be any different for months to come. NGWS is intended to be a broad grouping of products that brings us Integration Everwhere (not a slogan MS will choose to TM, we'd hazard), and transforms Windows into an all-encompassing Web-based services platform.

Even without the forcible splitting of Microsoft into two companies with barbed wire and government-constructed watchtowers, searchlights and machine guns between the two, it's difficult to see how any imposed legal remedy would permit anything even slightly like NGWS, as currently planned by Microsoft.

This week could have presented Microsoft with the ultimate in nightmare juxtapositions. On Thursday, it could have announced NGWS, and on Friday (Microsoft itself thinks this could happen) the judge could have delivered (and could still deliver) the sentence that made the announcement entirely impossible.

The way Microsoft put it when tipping journalists off about the postponement of the announcement was that it felt a "final decree... in our continuing antitrust matter... would distract attention and focus from our event next Thursday."

Well yes, it would a bit, but the point is that the final decree will inevitably make NGWS in its current form illegal. Microsoft has already touched on this, claiming the kinds of remedies the government wants, and is going to get, would make it impossible for Microsoft to take the huge development risks (insert guff about Boeing 747 and NASA here), but really it's the methodology that'll be unacceptable, not the cost or risk.

Microsoft is now planning to make the announcement on the 22nd instead, but this is undoubtedly a holding action. The company wants to be able to develop NGWS its way, rather than figuring out how to do it within the government's manacles, but it most certainly won't have achieved its dream result, a get out of jail free from a successful appeal round, by the 22nd.

So what does it do? The Brad Silverberg emails that finally escaped recently showed that a year ago there was an alternative strategy, but that it was rejected. Silverberg actually wanted to make a split between apps and OS in order to stop people (one in particular, but we'll just call him "Bill," OK?) inserting spurious pieces of integration in order to protect Windows. From the look of it, Silverberg wanted to develop NGWS as a middleware project run by a relatively free-standing apps division, so if such a division were imposed, the Silverberg plan could ride again.

So at the moment Microsoft seems to have two possible avenues. It could scream and scream, threaten to cancel NGWS, and insist that this is an example of how government interference is destroying innovation, the IT business, the US economy and customer choice (insert more guff about NASA and 747 here). Regrettably, we suspect the tantrum-prone High Command will incline to this route.

Or it could spend the next three weeks on a rapid revision of its slideware, working up something that could at minimum be viewed as a contingency plan to build NGWS within a separated apps division. This probably isn't as hard as it might look on the surface. We've noted strange noises suggesting that the first components of NGWS are intended to be out by the end of this year, which really means - as we've been quietly suspecting for a couple of months - that the basics of these components already exist. NGWS is not a new Windows operating systems, it is a set of client and server based services, many of which Microsoft is already shipping in one form or another.

At best it's a middleware project that could still quite easily fly if the base OS moved towards the status of essential service with equal availability to other companies, and Microsoft could build it just like those other companies (e.g. HP, IBM, CA) already do. At worst it's just a marketing concept intended to bundle and brand another big pile of Microsoft stuff. But in that case it's tricky to figure out why it should cost as much as the moon programme - that's one hell of a TV advertising budget. ®

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