Vista could be the last major upgrade of the desktop Windows operating system. In the future, Windows will be smaller, more modular, and easier for the IT department to manage, according to analysts.
Since the introduction of Windows 95 some 13 years ago, Microsoft has developed new operating systems by building on top of previous versions. However, industry experts say that Microsoft's policy of bundling ever more functionality into Windows is set to reverse.
Experts have predicted that future versions of Windows may be made up of a core operating system kernel and modular components, rather like Linux is constructed today.
Microsoft has started to offer a basic form of modular Windows in the Server 2008 operating system. Users can configure it to run in Core mode, which strips out all non-essential operating system features.
Server 2008 Core will provide a test-bed for Microsoft to assess how users would deploy a modular desktop Windows operating system, said Roy Illsey, senior research analyst at Butler Group. Microsoft is expected to introduce a modular version of Windows in the next major release of the operating sytem in 2012.
There is clear pressure for Microsoft to change tack. As Windows has become more sophisticated, IT directors have taken longer to move to newer releases. The uptake of Windows Vista has been particularly slow. A survey of 263 enterprises from analyst Dataquest, for example, found that Windows Vista was deployed on fewer than 1% of desktop PCs in enterprises in North America and Europe.
Modularisation of Windows should enable IT departments to configure Windows to run on existing hardware, allowing organisations to extend the life of PCs. In theory, the IT department could configure Windows with a limited set of modules needed by end-users to do their jobs.
"The IT department would only need to upgrade the components and modules that are actually being used, rather than a complete Windows installation," said Annette Jump, an analyst at Gartner.
Microsoft has found it increasingly difficult to keep up with the technology demands of IT departments. For instance, IT directors have had to turn to VMware and Xen rather than wait for Microsoft to release its own virtualisation software, which is due to be released this month.
But by taking a modular approaction, said Bola Rotibi, principal analyst at analyst firm MWD, Microsoft will be able to develop Windows in a much more agile way, which should allow Microsoft to roll out new technologies more quickly.
IT managers will be able to configure different flavours or personalities of the operating system, each optimised to run a specific type of application, such as web-serving applications, desktop productivity or enterprise software such as Microsoft Dynamics.
To make Windows modularised, Microsoft will need to re-engineer and rewrite Windows from the ground up to split it into components. Microsoft will need to ensure that the constituent components of Windows can be plugged in and out of the operating system kernel without causing the PC to crash or become unstable. Software will need to be written to run in multiple configurations of Windows where different components have been installed.
IT departments will also have to manage PC configurations much more closely than today to ensure that they only install software updates to the components on affected machines. David Roberts, chief executive office of TIF, the user group of corporate IT managers, said, "Modularisation makes it easier to migrate, but users will still need to test components." Potentially, the management of Windows licences could become more complicated if Microsoft licenses add-on modules for the base operating system.
Vista may indeed be the last major Windows upgrade IT departments install. It is in Microsoft's best interests to make it as easy as possible for users to upgrade and manage operating system patches.