Windows Could Use a Rush of Fresh Air
By RANDALL STROSS
Illustration by The New York Times
MICROSOFT Windows has put on a lot of weight over the years.
Beginning as a thin veneer for older software code, it has become an obese monolith built on an ancient frame. Adding features, plugging security holes, fixing bugs, fixing the fixes that never worked properly, all while maintaining compatibility with older software and hardware — is there anything Windows doesn’t try to do?
Painfully visible are the inherent design deficiencies of a foundation that was never intended to support such weight. Windows seems to move an inch for every time that Mac OS X or Linux laps it.
The best solution to the multiple woes of Windows is starting over. Completely. Now.
Vista is the equivalent, at a minimum, of Windows version 12 — preceded by 1.0, 2.0, 3.0, 3.1, NT, 95, NT 4.0, 98, 2000, ME, XP. After six years of development, the longest interval between versions in the previous 22-year history of Windows, and long enough to permit Apple to bring out three new versions of Mac OS X, Vista was introduced to consumers in January 2007.
When I.T. professionals and consumers got a look at Vista, they all had this same question for Microsoft: That’s it?
Just after Vista’s birth, Kevin Kutz, a manager at Microsoft, issued a cranky statement in February 2007, “In Response to Speculation on Next Version of Windows,” announcing that the company could not say anything about post-Vista Windows “other than that we’re working on it.”
The internal code name for the next version is “Windows 7.” The “7” refers to nothing in particular, a company spokeswoman says. This version is supposed to arrive in or around early 2010.
Will it be a top-to-bottom rewrite? Last week, Bill Veghte, a Microsoft senior vice president, sent a letter to customers reassuring them there would be minimal changes to Windows’ essential code. “Our approach with Windows 7,” he wrote, “is to build off the same core architecture as Windows Vista so the investments you and our partners have made in Windows Vista will continue to pay off with Windows 7.”
But sticking with that same core architecture is the problem, not the solution. In April, Michael A. Silver and Neil MacDonald, analysts at Gartner, the research firm, presented a talk titled “Windows Is Collapsing.” Their argument isn’t that Windows will cease to function but that the accumulated complexity, as Microsoft tries to support 20 years of legacies, prevents timely delivery of advances. “The situation is untenable,” their joint presentation says. “Windows must change radically.”
Some software engineers within Microsoft seem to be in full agreement, talking in public of work that began in 2003 to design a new operating system from scratch. They believe that problems like security vulnerabilities and system crashes can be fixed only by abandoning system design orthodoxy, formed in the 1960s and ’70s, that was built into Windows.
Unfortunately, this willingness to begin with an entirely new foundation is not located within the Windows group but in Microsoft’s research arm, where scientists and their heretical thoughts are safely isolated. Last April, Microsoft publicly unveiled the five-year-old research project, called “Singularity.” It is nothing more than a neat academic exercise, not a glimpse of Windows 7.
“Singularity is not the next Windows,” said Rich Rashid, the company’s senior vice president overseeing research. “Think of it like a concept car.”
If Microsoft thinks it is too late to actually use Singularity or something like it, the company should take heart from Apple’s willingness to brave the wrath of its users when, in 2001, it introduced Mac OS X. It was based on a modern microkernel design, which runs a very small set of essential services that make the system less vulnerable to crashes. But the change forced Mac users to buy new versions of all their existing Mac applications if they were to run speedily on the new system. It has paid off in countless ways, though, including some that could never have been anticipated at the time: just pick up an iPhone, built with the same code base.
Apple did not have to build a microkernel from scratch. It relied on more than a decade of development work performed by engineers at Next Computer, Steve Jobs’s start-up of the late 1980s and early ’90s. The engineers at Next, in turn, drew upon microkernel research by computer scientists at Carnegie-Mellon University.
In some crucial ways, however, Microsoft would enjoy advantages in developing its own “Windows OS X,” as we might call it, that Apple did not: the power of today’s quad-core machines and sophisticated virtualization software would allow older software applications and hardware peripherals to be used indefinitely with little or no performance penalty, making a clean start far easier for customers to accept.
A MONOLITHIC operating system like Windows perpetuates an obsolete design. We don’t need to load up our machines with bloated layers we won’t use. We need what Mr. Silver and Mr. MacDonald speak of as a “just enough” operating system. Additional functionality, appropriate to a given task, can be loaded as needed.
Microsoft should not wait to begin work on the big switch; it will take many, many years to prepare. Apple had the helpful goad of desperation. Avadis Tevanian, who worked on microkernel research as a Ph.D. student at Carnegie-Mellon, then on the Next operating system, followed by nine years at Apple where he oversaw the transition to Mac OS X, recalled how the decision was made when Apple’s market share was stuck at 3 percent and the company was losing money. I asked Mr. Tevanian if he thought Microsoft could pull off a similar switch.
“Perhaps, but I don’t know if it has the intestinal fortitude,” he said, “At Apple, we had to. It was a matter of survival.”
Microsoft should move its researchers into the heart of its systems development team. Windows OS X, a just-enough operating system built from scratch, is a product likely to be crucial to its future, too.
Randall Stross is an author based in Silicon Valley and a professor of business at San Jose State University. E-mail: email@example.com.
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