Microsoft goes Active

Andrew North gets a sneak preview of the software giant's new cross-platform operating system

Despite its many detractors, Microsoft's virtual monopoly across a wide range of computing applications seems set to continue and even strengthen. Already the leader in desktop PC software and catching up fast in the server market with Windows NT, the US software giant took things one step further last week by announcing a new, cross-platform operating system handling everything from desktops to servers and the connecting networks in between.

It is called the Active Platform concept and its release came with more than the usual quota of jargon and techno-babble. Essentially, the idea is to allow any machine to be able to talk to any other, whether it is a PC, an Apple Macintosh or a Spark server, and regardless of whether it is connected over the Internet or an intranet. The concept will be based around the Windows NT Server 5.0 and Windows 97 operating systems, which are due to be released in beta form next year.

Microsoft announced the new approach at a conference in Long Beach, California, attended by some 3,500 software developers. They left the conference with a stack of CD-Roms containing preview versions of Windows NT 5.0, which they can use to develop future applications in time for the full launch of the operating system.

Some developers expressed concern at the impregnable position the new system could give Microsoft. But the usual cynicism about the company seemed to have been suspended among many. "It is a major leap," said one developer. "Microsoft is being more open with its system codes than it's ever been and it will allow us to create all sorts of applications that weren't possible before."

One feature of the system is much tougher security, which Microsoft claims will ensure that data is just as safe when it is transferred on the Internet as on company intranets.

Although aimed primarily at businesses, the Active Platform concept could revolutionise computing in general, allowing all kinds of previously separate functions to be interconnected. "We are not far off the concept of the home server which you leave on 24 hours a day to handle all sorts of needs," said Paul Maritz, vice president of Microsoft's platforms group.

The Active Platform concept is a key bridge along the road to Bill Gates's vision of "Information at your fingertips" (or IAYF, in the acronym-loving world of computing). This would mean that you could retrieve any information, or buy any service or product, via a computer, with the bare minimum of commands, perhaps just using your voice.

Mr Gates first espoused his IAYF vision back in 1990 and he says it is already much closer to reality, in large part due to the Internet. "People no longer think of their PC just as a word-processor or for running spreadsheets. They see it as a general communications device," he said.

Speaking to the conference via satellite from London, he added: "We get a B-grade for our efforts to achieve IAYF so far."

There is still time for other companies to catch up, if they run

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