Long Road to Longhorn

Why is Microsoft talking up a desktop OS that's two years away from delivery? In some ways, it's by design.

Microsoft is famous for making large, sweeping pronouncements about the future of technology. Sometimes they come true, while others fall quietly by the wayside. In the '80s there were lots of speeches and interviews about natural language, fuzzy logic and graphical user interfaces. We know which one of these took hold. The '90s brought us information at our fingertips and Cairo, the end-all, be-all of object-oriented operating systems. We're still waiting on both.

In recent years, Microsoft discovered the Internet and security. And at the Microsoft Professional Developers Conference in fire-threatened Los Angeles a month ago, the company pushed and pushed its upcoming desktop and server OS, code-named Longhorn, and positioned it as the end-all answer to Web services.

Why would Microsoft talk about a desktop OS that most observers don't expect until 2006 and a server follow-on that will come out roughly a year to 18 months later? For many reasons. Microsoft is the most successful hype machine since Madonna, and when it generates excitement, it sells software and builds market cap. But the company also needs the ISV community to continue making a strategic and lasting commitment to future Windows, and for customers to buy in for the long haul as well. And, because it's so early in development, Microsoft wants the market to help drive Longhorn's ultimate design.

The message is an old one-by taking certain steps today, customers and developers can exploit new OSs tomorrow. In this case, working with the next rev of Visual Studio and SQL Server (Yukon), understanding XML, and buying into Web services, will make adopting Longhorn a snap. They seem to be saying, "For the next three years, stick with us, and we'll reward you with a hip new OS that will revolutionize how users access and manipulate information. And on the desktop, we'll charge roughly the same amount as today's XP."

The keys to the Longhorn user experience are enhanced graphics via Avalon, the new presentation system, enhanced searching across local and remote machines eased by a new universal file system, and the integration of various media, video, graphics, voice, text and so on into a single communications console. And the capper-built-in real-time speech synthesis and recognition.

Part of this rich experience is the busying up of our increasingly crowded screens with a "sidebar," which offers up buddy lists, Web feeds, notifications or other bits of information the user desires.
Thinking about one computer handling all these elements has most eyes straining already. But Bill Gates sees things differently. "The hardware level is key here, these qualitative changes where desktop displays will be either very large or multi-screen; you know, three 21-inch LCDs, or a single 26-inch LCD will cost only $500 or $600 in three or four years. So we have to think about managing the windows and letting people see a lot more than they can today," Gates explained.

Clearly, new display and PC hardware will be needed to exploit Avalon graphics. But even more important is the shift in how IT installs and manages computers, how developers write software, and, perhaps most vexing, how users work with PCs.

To get ready for this new world, attendees heard all about the upcoming release of Visual Studio, code-named "Whidbey," designed to build Web services and exploit XML-two items central to Longhorn's more advanced operations. Don't expect this new tool anytime soon, though: The beta isn't due until next year. With Whidbey, developers can connect XML services using a drag-and-drop design surface. Whidbey also supports 64-bit processors and can install, update or roll back applications with a single click. This same "ClickOnce" will be used in Longhorn to migrate new users in minutes, not hours, claims Jim Allchin, group vice president for Microsoft.

Meanwhile, Yukon, the next rev of SQL Server, also due in broad beta next year, adds new .NET hooks and XML integration. Some say a deep knowledge of Yukon is the best way to jumpstart a mastery of the new Longhorn file system, which borrows liberally from Yukon underpinnings.

Still smarting from system crashes and lost data, which continue in the XP world, Microsoft has a far different and more reliable vision for Longhorn. "Built into Longhorn will be essentially a flight data recorder….If your application has a problem, you'll be able to back up and see what happened, true for the operating system as well," explained Allchin. No more cryptic error messages? Say it ain't so, Jim.

Security is another sore spot. "In "Longhorn…we're going to basically soup to nuts [address security] from the entire lifecycle of when you're writing applications: when the system boots, starting, running, communicating securely, building and then staying secure. We're spending a lot of time thinking about the fundamentals and going back and seeing what we can do to improve them," Allchin said.

About the Author

Doug Barney is editor in chief of Redmond magazine and the VP, editorial director of Redmond Media Group.

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Reader Comments:

Tue, Mar 30, 2004 Moon PA

I long for the days of MS DOS 6.2 and windows 3.1.. I was happy then and some one changed the format and forced me to leave a perfectly workable system in the file box of has beens.. Most everything I use and do would still work on that platform and then came 95. And After that, 98 and after that 98SE. Then ME, Win 2K, and XP.. ANd now Longhorn?... Please take your time I am still trying to max the last few OS's...honestly....

Tue, Dec 16, 2003 anonymous Anonymous

Now we can can choose other desktop operating system, not just Windows, for example the new Sun Java Desktop, or SUSE Linux that is optimized by Novell. Actually you still can work on Windows NT 4.0 smoothly which has been released more tan 5 yrs ago. Many update software still can be installed on this platform, not just Windows 2000 or XP. We need to think why we need to use so 'update' OS? We may do the same thing as before after you have installed it? Also the hardware requitments will be increased after a new OS has been released. Buy both new software and hardware are $$. Think about it.

Mon, Dec 15, 2003 christy maryland, usa

Very funny, anon from philly. But, since you know about it, now they have to kill you...

Sun, Dec 14, 2003 RD New Orleans

Years ago, Microsoft was accused of using the FUD factor - fear, uncertainty, and doubt - to protect their market share. Hyping an OS that's 3 years down the road is the new version of FUD. They're throwing a bunch of stuff on the wall to see what sticks. "All these benefits and features, kids, which ones are you buzzing about?" ("OK guys, get on with it, build that in, now!") Besides, they're framing 2006 needs in 2003 language and experience. Things will be very different then. And can I afford to wait 3 years to make sure my system is secure? Why haven't they closed the holes before now? Oh, and "flight data recorder" my sweet tookus. We've needed more descriptive error messages since Win95 and now they're a touted feature of a future operating system? And I have to get three 21" or one 26" LCD to manage all the crap they're going to put on the desktop? Spare me.

Fri, Dec 12, 2003 anon philly

To Christy, you could be right about WDM$, the world domination thing. I have heard that, in the deserts of Oregon, a couple of square miles have been surrounded by an electrified fence and called Area 9x. In it is a huge hanger, and in that are twenty black helicopters with tiny little paintings of Clippy on the tailfins.

Fri, Dec 12, 2003 Rune Anonymous

I agree with you Gord, people will want something new, exciting, and useful come Longhorn - when XP has been out for 4-5 years.
Also because Longhorn brings so many fundamental improvements especially for developers and end users. I'm thinking about graphics, security, Web Services, and file system.
I agree that Win XP is very stable and good, but no OS is definite. Over time, new ideas and technologies will improve upon the previous version(s).
Honestly, I cannot wait for Longhorn myself...

Thu, Dec 11, 2003 Gord Calgary, AB

Its too bad its going to take so long to get here. We need those benefits today. For the folks that think Linux is the answer, guess again. Its not really free & its not ready for prime time. The average user can't stitch all the pieces togther nor wants to. Also, note than when the telephone was invented, most people didn't see a need for it & when the computer was born, the world market for systems was estimated at 5. HP told Steve Wosniak that there was no use for a personal computer. Thinking we don't need the benefits that should be available in Longhorn is extremely shortsighted.

Thu, Dec 11, 2003 Jim B Anonymous

Idiots at linux? Look whos talking. Linux is a community developed OS and given freely to members of that community and those that wish to join.
I agree the share for MS may change by 2006 as more people move to a lower cost OS such as linux. Plus with IBM and Novells support and the growing list of community members in the OSDL, linux on the desktop is a bigger reality.
The big question is Longhorn needed? Windows XP is a very stable OS. Do I need more graphical effects (Avalon) or more XML web services support? Most users don't. And WinFS is a good idea but will be under utilized because of the effort required to enter meta-data.

Wed, Dec 10, 2003 R Rahimi

will everybody wait for Longhorn?
I guess MS won't have this much of market share by 2006!
the PRICE is also a big big matter as those idiots at Linux side are givin away freeware all the time :-?

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