The next Windows platform will be a bid to regain control of the OS market Four years into his role as Microsoft's chief software architect, Bill Gates has received mixed reviews for his job performance - including an 'incomplete' grade from his toughest critic: himself. Industry analysts say the competition facing Microsoft has changed and that the company is facing critical challenges such as how to cope with continuing product pricing and security issues. Much is therefore riding on how the Microsoft chairman and co-founder executes his vision for the next edition of the Windows platform, codenamed 'Longhorn'. Following the release of Windows 2000, Mr Gates announced on January 13, 2000, that he created the new role of chief software architect and gave Steve Ballmer his old job as chief executive to enable him to dedicate more time to the next-generation Windows platform and services. 'The title 'chief software architect' is relatively unique to Microsoft,' said Dion Wiggins, research director at Gartner. 'But the role is similar in many ways to that of a chief strategic officer and chief technical officer in other big companies.' While crediting Microsoft's ability to keep financially strong and well-positioned in the overall information technology market, Mr Wiggins said the company, with Mr Gates' driving software innovation, had been unable to replace its Windows and Office products as the main 'cash generators'. Both products are under attack from substantial threats such as Linux. 'Linux and open-source software are unlike any competition Microsoft has ever faced because there is no single company, or even a group of companies, against which Microsoft can compete,' Mr Wiggins said. Microsoft's proprietary software structure is facing a movement which allows programming source code to be deployed or modified as users or other developers see fit. This movement is being championed by Microsoft's traditional rivals such as Sun Microsystems and Novell, and even endorsed by long-time hardware partners such as IBM, Hewlett-Packard, and Dell Computer. Mr Wiggins said Longhorn represented Microsoft's attempt to regain control of the operating system and productivity software markets. 'In the past five years, Microsoft has lost some of that control as browser applications and Java have become more popular, and as an antitrust lawsuit disrupted Microsoft's efforts to bundle its client operating system with other applications.' He expected it would be logistically impossible for mainstream enterprises to deploy Longhorn sooner than 18 months after the product ships 'some time in 2007 or 2008'. Ted Schadler, principal analyst for software at Forrester Research, saw Mr Gates' track record in the past few years was 'very good'. 'His genius comes from two sources: his passion for software development and his understanding of where the 'control points' lie in software architecture,' he said. 'Better than any other software executive, Gates has defined the places where Microsoft can lock out other companies and define a 'platform' on which developers can build successful applications.' But Mr Gates can be self-effacing at times. In his keynote address at last month's Comdex computer trade show in Las Vegas, Mr Gates said: 'I talked in 1983 about software being the key factor that would bring the hardware to life, and realise a lot of dreams, including the dreams that Paul Allen and I had starting the company. Well, the successes of the '80s and '90s were pretty phenomenal, but those only brought us, I would say, halfway to the dream of what software and hardware could do.' He said Microsoft and its partners had achieved much success in delivering innovations in the computing and communications industries. 'But in so many ways in terms of simplicity, and even in power, we're not there [yet],' he said. The result was that Microsoft was being driven to accelerate the pace of research and development, according to Mr Gates. This long-term view is reflected in its current investment of more than US$6.8 billion in research and development projects worldwide.