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Is Microsoft's 'Singularity' the OS of the future?

No, it isn't the next version of Windows. Redmond's "concept" operating system is designed for computer science research.

Microsoft's TechFest internal science fair wasn't just about social networking and telescopes.

The company also discussed new technology closer to its roots: an operating system kernel concept called "Singularity" intended as a showcase for some cutting-edge computer science.

The software isn't the next version of Windows or a reheated DOS. It's a prototype of an operating system intended for computer science research that Microsoft said demonstrates the possibilities for software that is more dependable and secure than contemporary OSes (yes, that includes Windows).

"Singularity is not the next Windows," Rick Rashid, senior vice president of Microsoft Research, said in a statement. "Think of it like a concept car. It is a prototype operating system designed from the ground up to test-drive a new paradigm for how operating systems and applications interact with one another. We are making it available to the community in the hope that it will enable researchers to try out new ideas quickly."

The Singularity architecture Microsoft Research

If you're itching to take a look at Singularity, Microsoft has made a research development kit available for free download from its CodePlex Web site.

The RDK includes source code, build tools, test suites, design notes, and other background materials. Microsoft says the software, governed by a special Microsoft Research license, can be used for noncommercial, academic projects only.

Microsoft said Singularity has been in development for more than five years. "More than 40 Microsoft Research researchers and interns have collaborated on the project, which incorporated their ideas on security, programming languages, tools, and operating systems--and accelerated their own research," according to a Microsoft Research post describing the project.

The roots of the project stem from research into what a modern operating system would look like and how it would behave. Microsoft points out that Windows, like Unix, Linux and the MacOS, all trace their origins back to Multics, an operating system that originated in the mid-1960s. In essence, the operating systems we use today are built on foundations that are more than 40 years old.

Singularity is written in an extension of C#, Microsoft's high-level programming language, as opposed to C or C++, which typically have been used for current operating systems. By using C#, Microsoft said, the researchers prevented a class of errors known as buffer overruns, "thereby eliminating an area of vulnerability typically exploited by worms and viruses."

Singularity is clearly a research project. It's an operating system kernel without a user interface. Still, as Larry Dignan at ZDNet points out, it does make you wonder whether some folks at Microsoft would like to start over from scratch with the next version of Windows.

Given the driver troubles, legacy issues, and compatibility headaches with Vista, that might not be a bad idea.