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Microsoft works on simplifying operating systems

The software maker says the next two versions of the consumer platform, code-named Millennium and Neptune, will bring a more straightforward user interface.

Microsoft's plans for its next two consumer operating systems can be boiled down to a single word, the company says: simplicity.

Microsoft has long been criticized for releasing software long on bloat and bugs, and short on simplicity. But the next two versions of the consumer platform, code-named Millennium and Neptune, will bring a more straightforward user interface while integrating support for new hardware and Internet features, a company spokesperson said.

At the same time some may wonder if, while the company tries to simplify the OS, customers will be confused by a variety of codenames and recent upgrades to the system. That sort of uncertainty could be seen with the recent release of Windows 98 Second Edition. (See related story.)

Microsoft last week delivered the initial plans for Millennium to PC makers for a "design review," a company spokesperson said. "We want to educate them on technology plans and get feedback," she said. "We have to work with them going forward, and we want to make sure that we're on the same page."

Intended for release in 2000, Millennium will focus on four key areas, the company said: digital media, home networking, a better Web experience, and simplicity. Microsoft declined to specify how these priorities will manifest themselves in the actual software, but executives have said in the past that home networking and digital imaging are fast emerging as important consumer technologies.

Millennium will be the first release from Microsoft in its Easy PC joint initiative with Intel, sources say. Easy PC is focused on creating a less-complex PC while encouraging innovative hardware designs. The PC in this vision completely hides MS-DOS and only uses technology such as USB, IEEE 1394, and Device Bay for expansion.

Although some backwards-compatibility is lost, the new operating system will likely offer improved boot time and expanded hardware support, according to the BetaNews Web site.

The company has acknowledged that its consumer offerings have been overly complex and hard to use. Earlier this year at the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference, Microsoft president Steve Ballmer said that Microsoft has "under-performed" in this area, compared to user expectations.

Today's PC is relatively error prone, difficult to use, and available in unexciting designs, Ballmer admitted. Microsoft recently reorganized the company to better address specific customer groups.

Contrary to Microsoft's original vision for the future of its consumer platform, Millennium will be based on Windows 98, rather than Windows NT, or Windows 2000, as its corporate operating system is now known. Those plans were shelved in favor of continuing the life of Windows 98.

Neptune will be the first consumer operating system based on Windows 2000, a company spokesperson said. It will not be released until 2001, at the earliest. "The timing is so vague," the company spokesperson said.

"It's definitely way off in the future," she said. "We're focusing on consumer Windows in 2000," as Millennium is also called.