With all the hubbub about Windows 2000, one thing seems to be lost on most people: It isn't an upgrade for Windows 98 home or consumer users. But don't think for a second that Microsoft is neglecting its biggest customer base: In addition to interim updates, bug fixes, and minor feature additions to Windows 98, the software giant is working on its next major consumer OS, code-named "Neptune." It is expected to see the light of day as Windows 2001, though a delay to 2002 is possible (and perhaps inevitable).

Thanks to John C. Dvorak, we now have our first glimpse of Neptune and the future OS that we'll all be using at home. Dvorak, who writes for PC Magazine, is the only person outside of Microsoft to get his hands on a copy of Microsoft's three-year battle plan for the new OS, which is designed specifically to address problems with today's computers. Dvorak cautions that the plan came to him anonymously, but he believes it to be real; based on his comments, I do as well: It is full of Microsoft-speak ("out of box experience," for example). Let's take a look.

The user interface will be based on HTML (or, more likely, a mix of Dynamic HTML and native Windows (Win32) APIs called Forms+) and will therefore resemble a Web site (in fact, Dvorak published an image of this new HTML desktop; see the link below for details). Called the "Start Page," this new Webtop/Desktop will be familiar to Outlook 98/2000 users, who use a similar feature called "Outlook Today." The Start Page includes a number of interface elements, including Back and Forward buttons, search capabilities, links to Documents and Programs, and other mixes of what are now considered separate Web browser and Explorer functionality.

While Dvorak feels that Microsoft hasn't learned its lesson from the ill-fated Bob (indeed, two generations of Bob-like Assistants in Microsoft Office tend to bear that sentiment out), I feel that the new desktop--if that, indeed, is what Start Page is meant to be--will be a welcome user interface for most people. Power users will want to tweak it heavily, but then HTML is very easy to customize. And if Windows 98 is any indication, Microsoft will include a new version of FrontPage Express to make that very easy.

Over the coming weeks, Dvorak promises to reveal more of the three-year plan to bring Neptune to market. While Microsoft would probably rather see the outside world spend its time ramping up to Windows 2000, this proves that there is more coming down the pipe and that it, too, will have its own surprises. Stay tuned for more information as it arrives.

And please check out John Dvorak's column, Microsoft's secret OS plan, which includes more information and a screenshot of the new Start Page