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Saturday, January 16, 1999 Published at 11:34 GMT


Windows to lose crown 'within five years'

Another operating system may be filling the shelves by 2004

By Internet Correspondent Chris Nuttall

Microsoft's technical guru Nathan Myhrvold has predicted that its Windows operating system will almost be consigned to history within five years.

Nathan Myhrvold talking on Radio 4's In Business
Windows is installed on more than 90% of the world's personal computers. Its dominant position has led to the US Justice Department's anti-monopoly case, accusing Microsoft of using the operating system to gain a similar stranglehold on the Internet.

But the company's chief technology officer told BBC Radio 4's In Business programme that every five years there is a major revolution in the computer business.

"It's virtually certain Windows will be superseded by something else within the next five years," he said.

"In fact, something may already exist, so today the seeds of the next contender to Windows - maybe its Linux, maybe it's Netscape Navigator, they've had a plan to turn that into an operating system, maybe it's the Java operating system. The seeds of the next revolution may be there now.

"Historically we know that many more seeds are planted than sprout into a successor but sometime in the next five years the successor to Windows will come about. We, of course, at Microsoft, hope that we're behind that. But if we don't work very hard, someone else will be."

Research paying off

Mr Myhrvold is in charge of a $3bn a year research and development budget at Microsoft and is involved with the setting up of a research centre for the company at Cambridge in England. He once studied at the university.

[ image: Myhrvold: Bill said triple it]
Myhrvold: Bill said triple it
"We find basic research to be a tremendous investment, we want to be around for the long run and have a stream of new technology to put into our products, and investing in basic research to do it ourselves we find is one of the best ways of doing that.

"In fact, two years ago I went to Bill Gates and I said I wanted to double the size of Microsoft research. And after looking at the payoff we had up to that point, Bill said 'No, why don't you triple it'"

He cited the development of Cleartype, a technology which appears to increase the resolution of screens fourfold to aid reading, as an example.

Little ventured

The Microsoft visionary said the thinking behind the Cambridge software research lab was that brilliant people were needed but were distributed around the world and should not have to leave their own countries to work for the company.

He said there was a tremendous amount of ideas in Britain and an entrepreneurial spirit that was lacking elsewhere in Europe.

"That said, there are some barriers. Britain doesn't have the right attitude towards failure. In Silicon Valley, it's very common for these young start-up companies to fail, so if a man has been CEO of three failed companies and he's burnt $10mn dollars of investors money with nothing to show for it, is he going to get funded the next time? Of course he is, he's considered an experienced guy.

"Yeah sure a couple of his companies failed but he's seen failure in the face, he knows ways that companies screw up and you can't expect to have a high rate of innovation and high risk companies without having some failures, whereas I'm told the situation in this country is much less forgiving."

Mr Myhrvold also criticised the lack of access to venture capital for young companies in the UK, with European funds more prepared to invest in technology centres in the US than their own backyard.

The UK had a very large potential, he said, but fulfilling it would not happen easily.

Road ahead

He said computers and the Internet were still very much in their infancy:

"Computers today are at the stage that motor cars were about 1910. They are significantly hard to use still. We have to go to them, to learn their commands, the software should come to us, we're the customers, it should inquire what we want, getting computers to do that is no simple task.

"Computers started off as these great mainframes, they entered our lives as individuals in the form of a desktop personal computer but very soon they're going to disappear, woven into the fabric of our lives in dozens of ways, so with our watches, our cell phones, our personal digital assistants, our wallet pcs, they'll go under the dashboards of our cars.

"[The Internet] was lying around in plain sight for about 25 or 30 years and all of a sudden it took off in a dramatic manner. Not only could the next [big] thing be out there, but it could actually be familiar and discounted and thought nothing of today.

"If you'd asked me at the time, I'd have said: 'Yes, [the Internet] is very important, but it won't become popular with a large number of people just yet. It's still too hard to use, there's no privacy, there's no security, there's no good way of doing a financial transaction, surely we must solve those problems before everyone starts to use it.'

"It turns out the magic in empowering people to communicate surmounted all of those difficulties. So all of these shortcomings have yet to be done, yet even so the Internet has become enormously popular.

"Because the power of putting that many people in connection with each other and allowing rich information to suddenly be at your fingertips is so compelling that people are willing to do it even despite the shortcomings of the current primitive system we have now."

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