A dozen years ago, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates launched Windows 95 in a famously glitzy presentation with the help of Jay Leno and the “Start Me Up” campaign. (There was also a special Windows 95 Web site on an emerging phenomenon called the Internet, and at the time it quickly became one of the Internet’s most popular sites ever, before it crashed Microsoft’s Web servers.) A dozen years before that, in 1983, Microsoft started the Windows phenomenon by launching the very first version of the OS in New York City, promising to change computers forever with a graphical user interface for the masses.

On Monday night, Gates and company were back where it all started, in the Big Apple, making bold new promises about the latest Windows operating system – Windows Vista – which Microsoft touts as the most significant renovation of the OS since Windows 95. The primary message was that Windows Vista will become the hub of the emerging digital lifestyle for work and play by seamlessly connecting the user experience from the phone to the laptop to the desktop to the TV.

“Everything is becoming digital,” said Gates at the flashy Vista launch in Times Square, “and the platform that allows people to be creative and build new applications and show off new hardware advances, that’s a central element that allows it all to thrive… People’s expectations for how we can do better digital health records, better education, better collaboration; all of those things rest on having this very strong platform.”

For Gates, that’s what Windows is now – a platform. “It’s definitely a platform for innovation. We’ve opened it up, and already we’re seeing partners doing great things.”

So what will Vista really do? Here are what I view as some of the most important issues for business users:

  • A lot of the power is under the hood with .NET 3.0, the Windows Presentation Foundation, and the Windows Communication Foundation; in Vista, these technologies will allow programmers to develop a new breed of applications that will be more secure, more interactive, and much more multimedia savvy.
  • Improved desktop search and the introduction of tagging – both of which aim to simplify the process of finding your stuff
  • A much more integrated multimedia experience that makes it faster and easier to deal with digital photos and videos and to output them to other media and devices
  • Ramped up XML and RSS support and integration to allow data to move across different platforms, form factors, and devices
  • A better security model for protecting users’ privacy and productivity

And for home users (and business users who also use their business machines as home), there are also some significant improvements that could improve your digital life, including the ability to quickly turn your photos into a DVD slideshow, being able to get your photos and videos on your widescreen TV, DirectX 10 for more advanced PC gaming, and better parental controls that allow you to manage and monitor what your kids are doing on their computers.

Undoubtedly, this is a long way from Windows 95, and a light year away from the first version of Windows that Gates touted in New York City 24 years ago. Vista now represents an interesting dichotomy in that it is essentially a “beyond the PC” strategy for Windows and yet it still has the PC as the anchor and hub of the computing experience.

Shortly after Windows 95 debuted, the Internet gained critical mass and the big question was whether Internet applications would eventually displace the OS and the PC as we know it and relegate Windows and other operating systems to antique status. That obviously hasn’t happened, at least not yet. The launch of Vista shows that Windows is as entrenched in our computing lives as ever, especially for business users. In fact, with Windows Mobile, Media Center, Tablet PCs, and Ultra-Mobile PCs, the footprint of Windows is only expanding.

Nevertheless, when I think of where Windows might be a dozen years from now, I think the same question that haunted it with the mass adoption of the Internet still applies. Will the OS take a back seat to Internet software or will it continue to drive the ship on where computing and digital living are going? Whether Vista is truly adopted as a “platform” and not just a piece of proprietary software that runs PCs will have a lot to do with answering that question. Microsoft’s old nemesis, Apple, which has risen from the ashes in recent years, looks like it might have something to say about it as well.