Microsoft Corp., Redmond, Wash., took a risk in developing its Windows NT operating system, which was released with great fanfare in July. Sure, it was a carefully calculated and very strategic risk. But, as Brian Moran of the company's developer relations group explains, "we made a large bet, and it is not one that would benefit the average computer user." So what, then, is NT all about? It's about planning for the future - the future of Microsoft, the future of the computing industry, and the future of millions of employers who can't afford to retrain their employees to use new applications every time they upgrade their hardware systems. Windows NT - which stands for "New Technology" - is an operating system that combines the graphical user interface of Windows, including icons and drop-down menus, with the ability to operate on just about any type of hardware. This includes minicomputers, workstations, and mainframes, as well as single-processor and multiprocessor systems. Thus, as a company's computing needs grow, it can upgrade to more powerful hardware without having to reinvest in new software and all the employee training that goes with it. "NT shields software programs from differences in underlying architecture," says Mr. Moran, "and it does so in a near-universal sense." For Windows NT to have any use at all, Microsoft had to convince software developers to write applications that could run on the new system. After all, people don't buy an operating system for the sake of buying an operating system -- they buy those systems because of the software programs that run on them. Without compatible software, NT would have little value. For this reason, Microsoft worked with countless software developers over the 4 1/2 years of NT's development. In fact, a developer's conference held a year before the product's release was attended by more than 5,000 people, and to date Microsoft has shipped more than 70,000 development kits. Support from the software community has been so good that more than 2,000 new applications for Windows and Windows NT are being developed for release in the near future. For NT to work its magic on different system architectures, the company also had to work closely with hardware manufacturers. At last count, the operating system had been tested for compatibility with more than 2,800 computers, printers, and peripherals. So, after all is said and done, what does NT offer users, particularly those who work in industry? First, it allows users to continue to use applications they are familiar with, even though they may upgrade or completely replace their hardware systems. Microsoft has built so much portability into the new operating system that Mr. Moran suggests users might be able to operate the same software for the next 20 years, regardless of what hardware platforms are developed. This represents a potentially tremendous savings for industry in that one of the major investments related to business computing is training. Second, NT runs business-critical applications such as engineering design, accounting, and inventory management, and it runs them on everything from personal computers to mainframes. Third, NT offers industrial users increased connectivity between different system architectures. "In the manufacturing environment there is always a mixture of old and new systems," Mr. Moran explains. A company might store information on a mainframe, employees might run analysis programs on UNIX workstations, and an engineer might use a desktop PC for word processing. "NT was designed from the ground up to support built-in networking," Mr. Moran adds, "so that, for example, a user can talk with the mainframe in one window, do some finite element analysis in another window, and, at the same time on the same screen, work on a monthly engineering report." Currently, without NT, a user would have to purchase additional software to gain the necessary connectivity, and even then might not be able to log onto the mainframe and the workstation at the same time. "In the past, people thought their hardware systems might work together," says Mr. Moran. "But NT was designed to make sure they work together." Bill Gates, chairman and CEO of Microsoft, explains the benefits to industrial users this way: With NT, "businesses now have a single platform on which to deploy client-server solutions and personal productivity applications. They can downsize business-critical applications, provide high-performance personal computing, and integrate their existing desktop applications. They will be able to pull together corporate data from all over the company to solve business problems and meet competitive demands quickly." Windows NT is not without its competitors; several technical desktop operating systems are being sold on the same shelf. But Microsoft has an advantage, because the company made the technology easy to use -- thanks to the Windows interface -- as well as incredibly easy to install and maintain. Proof of this comes in the form of sales that have far exceeded the company's expectations. Though Microsoft does not release dollar figures, more than 200,000 licenses for the product were granted within three months of its release. In a sense, Microsoft positioned itself for success from the beginning, when it hired Dave Cutler to direct the Windows NT development team in 1988. With 17 years of experience at Digital Equipment Corp., he had been involved in the development of several operating systems. The NT team started with a core of about 10 people under Mr. Cutler's direction, growing to more than 150 employees at the time of the product's release last summer. "It was a strategic move," Mr. Moran says. Company leaders realized they couldn't continue to be so closely linked with only IBM-compatible PC architecture. NT has shattered this association. "We are looking ahead 10 to 20 years and trying to figure out how to anticipate the changes in the computer industry. Our operating system anticipates changes at such a level that we can accommodate them."