Whether they like its interface or not, most people who use computers know what Windows looks like. Its very name proclaims that it's a GUI. Is the importance of this brandable look going to fall off? Could be.

One of the potential benefits of application service providers (ASPs) is that they can make the client-side OS irrelevant to your application choices. This statement isn't universally true—client/server applications need the client OS to run the application's client component, and some ASPs that publish browser-enabled applications require that clients use a particular version of a particular browser (and, thus, a particular OS). Typically, however, the statement is accurate: Running applications from a server in an ASP environment opens up the field of potential OSs quite a bit. For single-application environments, it can mean that you don't need much of a client-side OS at all—at least none that you see.

If your company provides Windows, the software that's almost synonymous with the word desktop, what does the disappearance—or at least virtualization—of the desktop mean? For Microsoft, it has meant a serious function-over-form makeover, pushing the OS's capabilities over its appearance—the part that many users are most apt to notice and comment on. In the last couple of weeks, Microsoft has shown its determination to do that. On January 13, Microsoft announced an alliance with Compaq and Digex intended to support application hosting—Digex SmartCenter data centers will manage Compaq servers running Windows 2000 (Win2K) and Microsoft BackOffice applications.

Last week, the pace increased. On February 1, Microsoft announced an alliance with EMC's Data General division. The companies will provide Windows 2000 Server (Win2K Server), Windows 2000 Advanced Server (Win2K AS), and Windows 2000 DataCenter Server (Win2K DataCenter) on Data General's server-in-a-box products. Data General will also offer its 99.9 percent uptime guarantee for these products. On February 2, Microsoft announced the Windows Alliance, geared to encourage network equipment makers and application developers to write for the Windows platform. On February 3, Microsoft, Compaq, and Esoft Global announced the Applications 2GO program to help developers adapt productivity applications for a European ASP environment (starting in the UK and moving north and south over the coming months). The rebranding seems evident on the client side also because Microsoft's recent announcement about its new standards of Windows-based terminals (WBTs) places less emphasis on whether the terminals use CE or NT Embedded—that is, on what the interface looks like—and more on what the terminals can do.

This push to promote Windows capabilities in the ASP market didn't start in January. In September 1999, the company announced the Complete Commerce program intended to encourage ASPs to use Windows NT as the server OS. Since then, Microsoft has promoted tools to make it easier to deploy applications and run them in a secure network environment. Citrix has been pushing its NT-dependent MetaFrame solution with great success, as the recent enlistment of more than 30 new members (including IBM and Corio) in Citrix's Application Developer Program shows. (Yes, Citrix now has MetaFrame for Solaris, but the company has made its reputation on Windows NT.) But the pace to Windowize the server side seems to have increased in recent weeks.

Late in 1999, I researched a story about where thin-client technology—inhouse and for ASPs—was going in 2000. One factoid that I picked up in the process was that Windows application development was dropping compared to Web application development; according to analysts and industry players, by the end of 2000 there will be more Web development than Windows development. Maybe. But as I said, it's too early to tell how profoundly ASPs will reshape computing. Right now, the environment is still heavily client- and Windows-centric. But just in case published applications become the norm—or a large chunk of it—Microsoft appears determined not to lose out to a world in which a well-designed Linux terminal could replace Windows on the desktop and still give users access to familiar-looking applications.