Code-named Eiger, the product is basically designed to turn older PCs into a thin client, which is a terminal that gets most of its information from a central server. Unlike traditional thin clients, though, a few programs can be run locally, including Internet Explorer, Windows Media Player and antivirus software.
Microsoft is pitching the software at customers who can't or don't want to buy new PCs, but are concerned that their older computers are not secure and hard to manage. In many cases, upgrading those machines to standard Windows XP just isn't an attractive option, even if it is technically possible
"If they wanted to run Windows XP, it really doesn't run very well; it might take 20 minutes to boot," said Barry Goffe, a group product manager in Microsoft's Windows client unit. "Eiger is a solution we are building, designed specifically for these customers."
Just when Eiger will be available is unclear, however.
Goffe said the product is in the very early stages of product development, with the company this week offering a preview version to a few dozen early customers. He did not give a date for a final launch of the product or say how the company will price it.
"While most of those customers will likely buy new PCs with a new OS, some of those customers are not in a position, either financially, politically or for some other reason, to buy new hardware," he said.
Although Eiger will offer security and other improvements, in many cases it won't be as widely capable as the older OS it is replacing. Microsoft won't guarantee that it will run most of the hundreds of thousands of Windows programs. The company won't even promise support for Office, perhaps the most ubiquitous of Windows programs. Office and other business software will be able to be run off a server and viewed on Eiger-based PCs using Microsoft's remote desktop software or thin client software from Citrix and others.
Goffe said Eiger is not intended to be a long-term fix for companies with older PCs. Rather he sees it as a bridge to Windows XP, or perhaps Longhorn.
"If they can't buy the hardware now, Eiger is a good solution," he said. "It's really designed to help them bridge the gap. By far the best solution is for them to buy a new PC with a new OS."
Goffe also acknowledges that probably only a small fraction of the machines running an older Microsoft OS will want to take the path proposed with Eiger.
One of the benefits to Microsoft is that each machine that moves from an older OS to Eiger is one less unpatched machine that can easily fall prey to viruses or other malicious code. Customers, too, have complained that they have no way to make older machines safe without replacing them with new ones.
"From a security perspective, there are a lot of unhappy customers out there because they are running older machines that can't be patched," Goffe said.
Under the hood, Eiger is a hybrid of Windows XP with Service Pack 2 and Windows XP Embedded. The software gets its code name from a mountain in Switzerland.
To run Eiger, Microsoft is recommending a Pentium II processor and 128MB of memory; However the software will also run on machines with an older Pentium processor and as little as 64MB of memory.
Goffe said Microsoft also has a list of other features that it won't get to with Eiger, things like support for more programs that can be run locally and the ability to connect to handhelds or other devices. Microsoft calls that wish list "Monch," named for the mountain that sits next to Eiger.
Microsoft enthusiast site Bink.nu first published details on Eiger and Monch last month, but Microsoft had declined to comment on the products.