Microsoft actually tried once, with Longhorn. They put a massive amount of time, money, and effort into it, and some of the initial early alphas (one of which I have, somewhere, on a DVD here) were AWE-SOME. Microsoft built a new OS that pretty much wiped the floor with any other OS.
I remember having high hopes for longhorn, though I never actually took any of the alphas for a spin. When Vista rolled-out, it was more than disappointing...
...unless it comes from Apple, of course, Apple is the god-king-fruitloop of the brainwashed masses....
LOL! Nicely put.
...massive breaking changes to backwards compatibility would have alienated the majority of their existing installed base.
Understood. Backward-compatibility is a two-edged sword for industry leaders -- it helps secure a loyal customer base who then hold innovation hostage to familiarity. When the "Up" folder button was abandoned, Microsoft indicated that it was a code-branching decision, and I'm sure there are thousands of similar decisions like that with each new version.
I might be mistaken, but I would think that UI customizations (menu items, taskbar layout, shortcuts, docs, toolbars, open/close/minimize buttons) would be possible without hitting the backward-compatibility wall -- it's the underlying functionality the interface is connected to that faces that constraint. What I'm imagining is a UI system that assigns every link, menu item, shortcut and UI widget a visibility status, location, behavior and relationship to other items. Then a user could mix and match and rearrange in whatever way they want. It's just the skin over the top of all the core functionality. Such customizability wouldn't prevent some things from being added/removed (like the Up folder button), but it would allow supreme flexibility in organizing the OS interface for the most personalized and efficient navigation and workflow.
You should look at Opera 12. Before they ditched their own rendering engine and become a Chrome Clone, Opera was the most customizable, feature rich browser on earth.
I've actually got Opera 12.17 installed right now (mostly for cross-browser compatibility testing for work). While I've enjoyed it when I've used it, I admit that I've become so accustomed to Firefox over the years that (despite its flaws) I haven't given any other browsers a serious look. Maybe I'll blow the dust off Opera and check it out in more detail.
There is another option for this as well. Windows has supported inline mount points, hard links and symbolic links for quite some time.
That works, too. I used to use Junction Link Magic to "move" stuff off the system drive.
Anyway, fun stuff. Thanks for the extra background and insights.
I think all I'm really wanting (and I know it's firmly in the "wish" category) is for Microsoft to A) Build the stellar OS I know they can build, and do it from the ground up, and B) Have a central guiding principle for the UI of ultimate customizeability for the user where they make as few "this is how/where we think it must be" decisions in favor of "let the users tweak it, hide it, move it, arrange it to their tastes".
By the way, as schizophrenic as Windows 8 seemed at first (is this for a mobile device or a desktop???), I fully support the idea of a single OS that serves multiple devices seamlessly. Ubuntu touch looks interesting on that front. The trick is to keep the learning curve across devices as low as possible while maintaining device-appropriate UI look/feel/behavior. Not Easy. I'm hoping Microsoft gets there sooner than later...
Apologies to the OP for the sidetrack.