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Is Vista The Last of Windows?

Could the image of a bloated Windows operating system criticized by competitors for its practice of bundling be on the way out? Although Microsoft is mum on the possibility, Gartner predicts Vista will be the last major release of Windows.

"The era of monolithic deployments of software is nearing an end," according to the research firm's year-end predictions.

Windows will become more modular by 2009, Gartner said, offering incremental upgrades rather than major releases, as well as offering applications as options, rather than bundled as part of the OS.

At 50 million lines of computer code, Vista marks the tipping point for the ever-heavier Windows, Gartner analyst Brian Gammage said. "Every release gets bigger."

However, possibly a more pressing problem for Microsoft is the increasing delays between releases. The last update, Windows XP, took five years to develop and release -- a period too long for both users and the software giant, according to Gartner.

Such delays in products result in the need to support older versions for longer. They also provide greater opportunity for Linux and other alternatives, the analyst said.

The change will allow Microsoft to deliver incremental upgrades more frequently.

Where computer systems now comprise a BIOS and operating system, a new layer of virtualization will be added, offering great modularity through an OS for Windows.

This would address many of the concerns from enterprises, which want to know why they should sign expensive yearly service agreements when it could be years before Microsoft issues an update, Gartner's Leslie Fiering said.

And according to Gammage, hardware is no longer upgraded when a new version of Windows is released, so business now considers Windows a cost, not a benefit.

Another negative for the current Windows has been the bundling of software that brought legal headaches as competitors complain of unfair practices.

Dropping its reliance on bundling provides even more impetus for Microsoft to move toward a subscription model for applications and increased competition with online rivals, such as Google.

For users, applications will be offered as optional building blocks able to be plugged into the operating system, giving consumers what Gammage called a "perception of choice."

One possible Windows plug-in application might manage antivirus settings, Fiering said.

Although Microsoft could continue with the old model for the next version of Windows, it isn't likely, after the delays seen with Vista.

"Who in their right mind would do that to themselves again?"