As we get ever closer to the official release of Microsoft's Windows Vista operating system, we have to ask ourselves what comes next — or is this the end?

I think it is the end, for a lot of reasons.

First, it's possible that Microsoft (MSFT) is out of ideas, and Apple (AAPL) is out of ideas from which Microsoft can borrow.

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If Microsoft wants to keep improving its OS, there is only one hope: to somehow develop an OS to coordinate and control the multiple cores within the CPU.

In other words, make a universal parallel-processing OS — a feat nobody has yet managed.

The multiple cores in a CPU are generally like those multi-CPU computers that process a lot of data in parallel.

Applications are specifically written to use all these chips. The apps do the work, and the OS tries not to get in the way.

Even if the OS does nothing more than use multiple cores to multitask programs, coordinating that among the CPU, the OS and subsystems such as memory, hard drive and peripherals is nightmarish.

Demos showing the power of multicore chips are usually games in which a specific function — AI, ray tracing or something that can't make too big a mess — is shoved to the extra core.

If Microsoft ever makes its OS take advantage of multiple cores, you can be sure it will be for something mundane.

Somewhere down the road, these multiple cores may be functional at the OS level.

But does Microsoft have the talent for this challenge? And how many decades will it take to develop?

The situation looks even bleaker when we see what's already happened to Vista.

Microsoft couldn't get the promised database-centric file system to work, so it was left out of the new OS.

This sort of file system goes back to the 1970s and was used in the Pick OS and other systems. Yet Microsoft, with all its resources, can't make it work.

To make matters worse, when Microsoft tries to add features to its OS, it gets attacked by companies who provide these functions as third-party vendors.

This includes the antivirus and firewall companies, a few of which are threatening to sue Microsoft on the same grounds as the old antitrust case.

Microsoft's unfortunate history, combined with its incredibly deep pockets, makes it a wide-open target for legal harassment as well as legitimate attacks. It's still unclear how Microsoft will be treated in Europe and China over the long term.

I don't get how Microsoft's supposed visionaries couldn't see this coming when the company was riding roughshod over its competition in the 1980s and 1990s, especially when you consider that Bill Gates's dad is a leading partner at a huge law firm.

While Microsoft, because of its sheer size, is no more doomed than IBM (IBM) ever was, it's never going to be a leader again, if the Vista saga is any indication.

What we are witnessing now is nothing more than upgrades and maintenance.

The company still makes its money from two product lines (OS licenses and Microsoft Office) and seems less than sincere when it ventures into other markets.

When it does have a winner, such as the Xbox 360, it can't bring itself to stomp on the gas pedal. Despite having billions in the bank, the company is still risk-averse.

Once Vista emerges and the OS scene is reset for another two or three years, there will be an opportunity for something new to become the rage.

It may finally give the slowly growing Linux a chance to capture the desktop and change the way we spend our money.

Everyone would love to get off Microsoft's expensive treadmill.

Opportunity is knocking. Will anyone answer?

See John get cranky about technology in his new Cranky Geeks IPTV Show.

Go off-topic with John C. Dvorak here.

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