Longhorn: Big Hat, No Cattle?

Microsoft is battling the perception that there's little to get excited about in the long-awaited and much-ballyhooed Longhorn.

Having stripped Longhorn of the unified file system that some consider the Holy Grail of Windows, Microsoft is trying to generate excitement for its next- generation operating system by touting cosmetic functions in a compelling new interface. But observers are wondering whether even the sweetest of Longhorn's treats will taste a little stale by late 2006, when it finally ships.

With delivery well beyond a year away, Microsoft is already battling a perception that some of the sleekest elements of Longhorn's Aero Glass user interface derive from the now-shipping Apple Mac OS X Tiger. Tiger's Aqua 3-D interface sports transparencies, shading and animation along with built-in search capabilities—all of which are promised in Longhorn. In terms of desktop search, Microsoft is fighting Apple and Windows add-ons from vendors like Google and Yahoo. By the time Longhorn ships in November or December 2006, a raft of Linux competitors are also expected to deliver technical advances at the server level that will largely match those of Longhorn server.

Microsoft appears to be feeling the pressure. At the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) in late April, Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates dedicated a good chunk of his keynote address to a demo of an early form of Aero Glass. The UI is Microsoft's shot at big strides in desktop search capabilities and an intuitive leap in file and folder organization.

Gates assured his WinHEC audience that the Longhorn demos represented "not even half of what will be there," when Longhorn ships. (For a breakdown of what's in Longhorn so far, see "A Work in Progress"). A Redmond magazine survey of 3,400 readers found that 55 percent already expect they'll upgrade to it sometime after the Longhorn client is released (see "The Microsoft Survey"). But IT shops that are paying attention at this early stage are not anticipating bold and unexpected features in the first version of the product, and say Microsoft's ability to sell the product will be severely tested.

A Work in Progress

In advance of Beta 1, more than half of the features of the Longhorn client remain secret, according to Microsoft. Here are the key elements made public thus far.

Aero — The new GUI will come in at least three modes: Aero Glass for high-end systems, Aero for lesser systems and a classic Windows view for older computers. Features of Aero Glass include transparent windows and 3-D file visualization.

Visualization and Organization — File icons are replaced with mini pictures of the first page of a document; folder icons show mini pictures of several of the documents inside; file properties are more prominent and automatic virtual folders collect similar documents. Microsoft hopes the organizational overhaul will reduce the need for desktop search.

Desktop Search — Quick-search pane for searching across e-mail, documents, photos, music, visited Web sites and RSS feeds. A new application search in the Start menu will also allow users to type in a partial or full name of an application to launch it, rather than navigating to the app.

Avalon — New presentation subsystem provides foundation for improved imaging, high fidelity and other features.

Metro — A new fixed-document format that enables users to view, print and store documents without the program that created them (much like Adobe PDF).

Security & Privacy:
Windows Firewall — Enhanced to a two-way firewall with filtering.

Reduced Privileges — Limited user administrator rights will allow users to install applications and change settings without needing to run Windows and IE as administrators at all times.

Secure Startup — Uses a Trusted Platform Module in hardware to prevent unauthorized access to laptop files through encryption of the entire hard disk. Firmware changes are also in the works.

Images — Tools for image creation, editing and installation to improve ease of deployment for administrators.

Diagnostic Infrastructure — Described as a black box for your computer, think of this as the next generation of Microsoft’s Watson system that reports problems to Microsoft and helps the company prioritize bugs.

Indigo — The communications subsystem that is supposed to provide a richer environment for Web services. Indigo will also be available in Windows XP and Windows Server 2003.

Fast Startup — Several technologies converge to reduce boot time and recovery from idle states.

Hot patching — As usual, Microsoft is promising fewer reboots in the patching process.

Quarantine — Microsoft is rolling out network access protection technologies in stages, starting with Windows Server 2003. The Longhorn OS is the current endgame for all of Microsoft’s quarantining technologies.

Lumbering Giant
What continues to shackle Microsoft's ability to deliver innovative capabilities is the enormity and diversity of its user base, making it impossible to react quickly to smaller, more nimble competitors.

"Microsoft is stuck between a rock and a hard place. It can't offer best of breed in some areas because it is so wrapped up in trying to satisfy the needs of all its different constituencies," says Bill Cornfield, director of the Windows User Support Group (WSG) in New York. "The attitude is, ‘We will do only the things we do well and do them the best we can.' But competitors can concentrate on targeted and sometimes more interesting things."

Its recent acquisition of Groove Networks fueled a flicker of hope that Microsoft would be able to stitch into the first version of Longhorn some of Groove's peer-to-peer communications and collaborative features. Gates himself inspired that hope at the news conference announcing the deal, saying Microsoft would meld the best of Groove's "peer-to-peer and authentication capabilities," in with similar technologies his company has been working on that would strengthen Longhorn.

But other Microsoft and Groove officials are less than optimistic about planting meaningful Groove-based technology into the first release of Longhorn. "We have conversations about what features should be enabled in Groove as far as Longhorn, but it is too early to lock down what those would be," says Ray Ozzie, the founder of Groove and now a Microsoft chief technology officer. Ozzie did outline a two-pronged strategy where Groove continues to stand alone as a product, while pieces of Groove technology are bundled with Microsoft applications and operating systems. Other officials indicate Groove features will not likely appear until the follow-up version of Longhorn, pushing them out to at least 2007.

Michael Cherry, lead analyst for operating systems with Directions on Microsoft, thinks Microsoft needs to add some sort of enticing features to Longhorn and isn't ruling out the idea that it will. But he says Microsoft should not attempt to integrate something as significant as core technology from Groove.

Citing Microsoft's own formula for approaching operating system development, Cherry says three things must be considered: quality, time and features. The company can change only one of those elements and still succeed. In Longhorn's case, Microsoft can insist on top quality and a complete set of features, but take a longer period of time to deliver. Or it could choose to stick with a firm ship date, which it would hit by varying quality or the number of features. Naturally, though, Microsoft doesn't want to skimp on quality and the product is already running late.

"No matter how cool Groove is I would vote no on including it because if I accept more features with time and quality already [set], I would be toast. Time is not going to move but quality will," Cherry says.

The Road to Longhorn

October 2001: Windows XP ships

September 2002: Windows XP Service Pack 1

April 2003: Windows Server 2003 ships,

October 2003: PDC Longhorn preview

May 2004: WinHEC Longhorn preview

August 2004: Windows XP Service Pack 2; WinFS cut from Longhorn; Microsoft announnces Avalon and Indigo will be backported to XP/Win2003

November 2004: Avalon Community Technology Preview

March 2005: Indigo Community Technology Preview; Windows Server 2003 SP1

February 2005: Microsoft says it will deliver Internet Explorer 7.0 before Longhorn

April 2005: Second WinHEC Longhorn preview

June 2005: **You are here**

Summer 2005: Longhorn client Beta 1; Internet Explorer 7.0 technical beta

2H 2005: Longhorn server Beta 1

1H 2006: Longhorn client Beta 2

Nov-Dec 2006: Longhorn client

Sometime around Longhorn client release: WinFS Beta

2007: Longhorn Server

The Linux Threat
But many observers believe that leading Linux distributors such as Red Hat and Novell Inc., with the help of their moneyed benefactors IBM and HP, will continue to make inroads against Windows, particularly against Longhorn server, which isn't expected until 2007. With technologies such as virtualization, network-based capabilities built around Web services and improved security, these observers expect Linux offerings will be as technically competent as Longhorn in the late-2006/early-2007 time frame. And with Apple's newfound momentum, some believe it can nibble away at Longhorn at the lower end of the desktop market.

"Linux is increasingly becoming a creditable platform for a lot of users on servers and even for some on the desktop. But Windows is ubiquitous and enterprises have ploughed so many resources into it that they have to seriously consider upgrading," says Stephen O'Grady, senior analyst with the consulting firm Red Monk. "It will be critical for Microsoft to continue with Longhorn what it started with [Windows XP Service Pack 2], namely crisp execution of its Trustworthy Computing and security initiatives. Otherwise it leaves an opening."

A Secure Future
If there is one feature that would make Longhorn more compelling to most users in lieu of dazzling innovation, it would be rock-solid security. In fact, the lack of such security could be the No. 1 reason to drive many to more seriously consider Linux on servers and Apple on the desktop. If it can deliver on its security promise, Microsoft can further cement its operating system monopoly. If not, it could lose significant market share.

"Longhorn is Microsoft's chance to design in security from the bottom up. If it does a good job, it will be forgiven for a lot of things like the file system that's not in there and being very late. If Microsoft screws it up, you are going to see IBM and a lot of other people waving their Linux flags," WSG's Cornfield explains.

Gates himself certainly seems to agree that security in Longhorn is critical. Although the visually impressive Aero demonstrations dominated his WinHEC keynote, he said the biggest single area of focus in Longhorn is security. Details on security changes remain sketchy, but public elements include a two-way firewall, an end to users' need to run Windows and Internet Explorer as administrators and hardened firmware through cooperation with partners.

Fighting Itself
The most formidable competitor Microsoft must face in trying to sell Longhorn is Microsoft itself. Since its arrival to market in October 2001, Windows XP has served users well. With Service Pack 2 last year addressing a range of user concerns, along with Microsoft's promise to port Avalon, Indigo and possibly the WinFS file system to Windows XP, many users feel no burning desire to upgrade to Longhorn.

Another element adding to Windows XP's appeal is that Microsoft recently announced plans to make its upcoming Internet Explorer 7.0, expected to arrive before Longhorn, available for XP.

"Maybe I have to see Longhorn in action to better appreciate it, but from what I know and read, I don't think I need it tomorrow. For the apps we plan to roll out over the next year or two internally, XP would seem to serve our purposes," says John Henderson, a LAN administrator with a large transportation company in Houston.

Another potential barrier to Longhorn's broad acceptance will be the desktop hardware needed to run the operating system. Here again, some users think Windows XP will keep them happy for the foreseeable future, allowing them to avoid a sizeable outlay for hundreds of heavily muscled desktop systems (see "Enter the Longhorn PC").

More than a few industry observers, however, believe that no matter what Microsoft or its rivals deliver over the next 18 months, its enormous technical and financial resources, marketing machine and political sway in the industry will guarantee a certain amount of success. Microsoft may be forced to move slowly in terms introducing technical innovation because of its vast user base, but eventually it finds a way to wield that user base as a lethal weapon.

"Microsoft is both in an enviable and difficult position. It is the dominant supplier of desktop and server operating systems and so many people have built five-year IT strategies around Windows," says Dan Kusnetzky, vice president in charge of IDC's System Software research. "The difficult part is that no matter what Microsoft delivers, some contingents are not going to be happy because they have been handed this monolithic, unified block of an application platform."

As the army of Linux and other open source software competitors marches towards Microsoft's castle with torches and pitchforks, some think they will have great difficulty even crossing the moat.

"Most companies are going to eventually move to Longhorn because Microsoft will get a tremendous renewal rate among current subscribers through things like Software Assurance," says Mike Drips, an independent IT consultant in San Francisco who works with a number of large end-user companies and government agencies. "You can talk about the open source competition all you want but they will amount to a flea on a rhino's rear end."

More Information

Longhorn Delivery Checklist
Microsoft has a number of key obstacles to clear on the way to delivering the Windows Longhorn client by the 2006 holiday season:

  • WinHEC 2005 Longhorn Preview — At the late April show, Microsoft delivered a preview release with a finalized device driver model. That clears the way for hardware and software vendors to start building support into future products.
  • Longhorn Beta 1 — IT admins, this one's for you. Planned for release this summer, the release will mark the beginning of Microsoft's efforts to reach out to IT.
  • PDC 2005 Longhorn Preview — Microsoft's first audience for Longhorn was developers, back at the Professional Developers Conference in 2003. This September, Microsoft will ratchet up the documentation, code previews and hype around Longhorn for developers at PDC once again.
  • Longhorn Client Beta 2 — No date has yet been specified, but the first half of 2006 is the likely target. This will be the broadly distributed beta with all the end-user goodies in it for consumers and corporate users.
  • Longhorn Client General Availability — The date is vaguely set at holiday 2006. What it means is Microsoft must RTM in plenty of time for OEMs to deliver complete systems in December.


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