Last month, reporters at PC Week got a hold of internal Microsoft documents relating to a project code named Neptune. This next generation consumer Windows OS will offer tremendous networking power to the at-home consumer. Microsoft will probably release the beta version of Neptune next summer and make the software commercially available around April 2001. By all indications, Neptune appears to be the long-awaited consumer Windows OS based on the Windows NT kernel and the final replacement for legacy 16-bit Windows code. Neptune will be the spiritual successor to Millennium. Millennium, which Microsoft recently unveiled, is the next upgrade for Windows 98 (for more information, see "Millennium: 'It Will Just Work' " http://www.winntmag.com/Articles/Index.cfm?ArticleID=7059). Although Millennium will expand support for the Universal Serial Bus (USB), making PC networking and expansion more graceful and reliable, Millennium is still based on the 9x kernel, which is the same kernel that Win98 uses. The considerations in favor of switching the OS to a new kernel are many. For Microsoft, such a switch will mean that its Consumer Windows division and Business & Enterprise division can share many more components. For IT managers, the switch will make networking between consumer and business OSs less of a headache. For the home consumer, an OS based on the NT kernel will represent a leap forward in home networking capability. Microsoft has said that Neptune will act as a Home Hub, the internal backbone for a networked home entertainment complex. If Microsoft delivers on its promise, Neptune will be able to perform tasks such as passing video from your TV or camcorder to your computer, or vice versa, with relative ease. Microsoft also hopes to make Neptune, or third-party optimizations of Neptune, the heart of a new generation of nontraditional PCs known as home entertainment PCs. These GamePCs and MediaPCs would be living-room ready and designed to be viewable and usable on your living-room TV. Neptune may also show up as the OS of choice in corporate multimedia conference rooms. Neptune will feature Microsoft’s much touted Universal Plug and Play (PnP) access, which will let PCs, traditional peripherals, and nontraditional peripherals (such as TVs and security cameras) plug in to the home network and instantly share resources. However, several industry critics have already accused Universal PnP of being nothing more than a pipe dream. For example, the Microsoft Boycott Campaign points out that Microsoft doesn't have regular PnP working in NT, but Windows 2000 (Win2K) should go a long way to correct this misconception over the next six months. However, the switch to the NT kernel won't be without its problems, the most important of which will involve ensuring compatibility between Win9x and NT applications. Just consider that in one important sector of the consumer market, PC gaming, approximately 75 percent of the software doesn't work on NT-based OSs and you begin to get the picture. Microsoft will have to either radically increase its NT legacy compatibility capability or effect a large-scale shift in the gaming industry’s standards. In the end, the message behind the Neptune buzz seems to be one of greater network integration, both inside your home network and between your OS and the Internet. Neptune will feature a Web-like interface throughout, as well as WinTone, a technology that Microsoft hopes will let PCs become self-healing and self-repairing through interaction with remote administrators. When we asked Microsoft to comment on the Neptune project, the company declined. A spokesperson for the company told us that it was too early to discuss the details of this early-stage OS.