Microsoft's Mission: Simplify, Simplify

Will an easier-to-use operating system win over the holdouts?

What's the next big software breakthrough that personal-computer users and PC makers want to see? No, it's not another whizzy feature that only the truly nerdy or the truly young can master. It's something far harder to produce: simplicity. Unless computers become much easier to use, PC makers fear, they won't be able to keep finding new customers--no matter how little they charge for hardware.

Even Microsoft Corp. agrees. But can the company that spent the last 15 years larding Windows with scores of esoteric new features create such a thing? It's going to give it a try. As part of a wide-ranging evolutionary plan for Windows (table), the Redmond (Wash.)-based software giant is designing an operating system that pairs the industrial-strength code of Windows NT with a super-easy user interface.

HOWLING. The key is Neptune, the code name for the new interface prototype, says James Allchin, Microsoft's senior vice-president in charge of personal and business systems. Instead of staring at icon-filled screens and file menus, Neptune users might choose among a handful of activities--communicating or managing personal finance, for instance--prompting the PC to load the necessary programs. Allchin says it could make PCs about as easy to control as a telephone.

PC users have been howling for years about the machines' growing complexity. Already, Microsoft and chipmaker Intel Corp. are working with PC makers to make connecting peripherals easier. And Microsoft has quietly launched FirstPC, which is aimed at shortening the PC bootup process and getting new users on the Net more easily.

But Microsoft has resisted the move that many PC makers have urged: creation of a stripped down, easy-to-use operating system. Neptune, at least, should hide some of the complexity. And the underlying NT code should eliminate many of the causes of those Windows crashes that consumers hate.

But if Microsoft's try at simplicity doesn't work, there may soon be other options for consumers and PC makers. Apple Computer Inc.'s easy-to-use iMac is winning away some PC fans. At Compaq Computer Corp. and elsewhere, PC designers are experimenting with consumer-friendly Net gadgets based on the Linux operating system, which can be scaled down as needed. Among the products that could run a simplified operating system: digital cable TV boxes that would provide Web access, E-mail, and games via TV.

Neptune details are still sketchy, but Microsoft says the essence is "task-based" computing. Instead of clicking through long menus of programs and files, users would simply indicate what they want to do, whether it's writing a letter or surfing the Net. "Users don't want to be distracted by all the things computers can do," says Allchin. A consumer who wants all the bells and whistles can still find them, but for others, there will be a simpler route: Two clicks on a "Write Letter" icon might pull up a letter template. "This makes lots of sense," says Mark Eppley, president, chairman and CEO of software maker Traveling Software Inc.

Neptune is at least 18 months away. In the interim, Microsoft is cooking up a string of upgrades to Windows 98. A new version dubbed Second Edition is due this quarter. Another is slotted for next year. With each, Microsoft will gradually discard old code from the system. The year 2000 version of Win 98, for example, is the last version that will support old MS-DOS games.

Will Neptune catch on? Some PC makers say Microsoft needs to do much more than put a slick front-end on Windows NT. And, critics say, all the new Windows versions will cause confusion. "They are all over the map, and it just doesn't make sense," says Rob Enderle, an analyst with Giga Information Group. That doesn't sound so simple.