Windows 7 launches next week. Microsoft hopes the new operating system will wash that bad taste of Vista out of the mouths of both customers and the enterprise. That means, of course, that it’s time to start thinking about Windows 8.

Too soon, you say? The rumor mill has it that Redmond is already planning the next version of its desktop OS. The other week, the LinkedIn page for one Robert Morgan, a senior member of Microsoft’s Research & Development team, stated his current projects including “128bit architecture compatibility with the Windows 8 kernel and Windows 9 project plan.” Someone yanked that page down, but the cached version can be found here.

At the end of last week, a European health care newsletter quoted Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer as telling the audience at the U.K. press launch of Windows 7, “We’ve got Windows 8 under development now.” Curiously, no other news stories that I could find seemed to carry that quote, so I asked Microsoft for confirmation of what he said.

Claiming that a transcript of the event wasn’t available, a Microsoft spokesperson finally got back to me late Friday night:

“We have nothing to share about Windows 8 at this point as we are super-focused on delivering Windows 7 and sharing the value it offers to our customers.”

Indeed. But it’s interesting to conjecture for a moment, even as Windows 7 finally hits the street, what form its successor will eventually take. The announcement of the browser-based Google Chrome OS, back in July, focused attention on the idea of an operating system operating exclusively out of the cloud; indeed, much of the media seemed quick to declare the Chrome OS–due for release in the second half of 2010–as the end of desktop-based operating systems as we know them.

During Microsoft’s Worldwide Partner Conference in New Orleans, Ballmer used his July 14 keynote address to dismiss the idea that an operating system could run out of the browser entirely.

“There’s good data that says 50 percent of the time that someone’s on their PC, they’re not doing something with the Web browser,” Ballmer said, before going on to suggest that “what we really do understand is that the model of the future brings together the best of rich Windows applications and what people consider the best of the Web.”

(Granted, even when I’m using something like Word–and I assume this goes for everyone–those programs that rely on the browser are still running in the background, but for the sake of Ballmer’s argument we’ll set that aside. For the moment.)

Except that Microsoft’s systemwide revamp of its product lines, from Windows 7 to Office 2010 to Xbox 360 and the Zune HD, all integrate more fully with the Web. Office 2010 will offer a stripped-down version based out of the cloud, and developers–Microsoft hopes–will come to rely on Azure’s cloud-computing resources as they create applications and platforms.

When Windows 8 finally hits the street in 2012, I’m betting (and this is total conjecture on my part) that it’ll be more cloud than desktop. Everybody except for those 800,000 Sidekick owners seems increasingly able to trust the cloud and its abilities to serve their needs. Whatever the final form of Windows 8, though, Microsoft will need to design a platform that counters the threats presumably posed by Google Chrome OS and other browser-based systems, while also creating something that generates a revenue stream for itself and allows its legacy programs to run. That could be a tall order; we’ll see how it goes.

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