Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer has said that the company "won't ever take five years to develop another version of Windows". If this is true, and if the time between previous major consumer versions of Windows is any gauge, it places the successor to Windows Vista, code-named Vienna, on course for a 2010 or 2011 release.
Microsoft is committed to putting Vista on store shelves in early 2007. The OS (operating system) will dominate the desktops and laptops of computer users over the next few years. Its 3D Aero interface marks a big departure from the 2D view of Windows we've become accustomed to over the past 20 years. And the inclusion of Media Center capabilities in most versions will mean people will use their PCs for much more than just word processing.
Furthermore, the introduction of the Windows Sidebar and the proliferation of widgets and gadgets that stay onscreen at all times will enable your PC to bombard you with up-to-the minute, interactive information all day long.
Apple's Leopard revision of OS X, due out in early 2007, will make incremental improvements to the Mac OS, adding such features as an automated backup utility and multiple workspaces. And on the Linux front, the XGL and Compiz windowing systems – interfaces that finally give Linux a pretty face – may outdo OS X's Aqua interface in sheer awe factor.
In Compiz, the windows stretch and skew as you move them. You can view multiple desktops in 3D as the cube-style workspace rotates. 3D interfaces will become commonplace. Such third-party 3D desktops could become a standard, productivity-boosting OS feature, especially if coupled with new file systems.
Research firm Gartner says both Mac OS and Linux will gain ground, while others predict the arrival of a web-based OS. This would allow you to access the applications currently stored on your PC's hard disk through an internet browser. Your favourite tools would be located on someone else's servers – YouOS.com is already experimenting with this. So while your choice of operating system is critical now, in time it won't matter as much.
Rapidly improving virtualisation technology allows you to run multiple OSes simultaneously on one PC as 'virtual machines', each with their own selection of programs. In five or 10 years your choice of OSes could become as mix-and-match as your choice of web browsers is now. Where now you might use Firefox as your main browser and switch to Internet Explorer for certain web pages, in five years' time you'll switch between operating systems depending on the application you want to load.
A key factor driving that trend will be hardware innovations that make existing virtualisation run smoother and faster. Both AMD and Intel are shipping CPUs with hardware support for virtualisation.
Apple's decision to put Intel chips inside its computers points the way to a multi-OS future. The company's Boot Camp software permits dual-booting, which means you can run both Windows and the Mac OS on one system. In the future, virtualisation could allow us to run any application in any OS, at any time.