How Much Will Longhorn Matter?

Windows "Longhorn" took a serious blow to its coolness quotient a month ago when it got a hard ship date and a serious loss of exclusive features. Suddenly, many of the big ideas in this operating system are either separated from the OS or will be available in older versions of Windows.

As recently as last June, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer saw fit to say about Longhorn: "Longhorn is our big bet on galvanizing the next big breakthrough—even bigger, perhaps than the first generation Windows release."

Specific elements of Longhorn included a new presentation subsystem (Avalon), a new communications subsystem (Indigo), a new file subsystem (WinFS), a new development model (WinFX) and a security subsystem featuring innovative ties to hardware (Next Generation Secure Computing Base).

Then, in late August, Microsoft announced a firm ship date of 2006 for the Longhorn client, that WinFS was out of the OS and would only be available as a beta when Longhorn ships and that Avalon, Indigo and WinFX would all be available as downloads for Windows XP and Windows Server 2003. In September, Microsoft officials revealed that NGSCB, also known as "Palladium," is scaled back from its original design.

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WinFS had the potential to change a lot about the way computer and network data is stored. What had been a truly exciting reason to look forward to the Longhorn release is now erased.

Avalon and Indigo had the potential to enable new kinds of applications, encouraging a new round of immediate hardware upgrades to take advantage of the new development model. Now with the backport to Windows XP and Windows Server 2003, they still have potential to inspire a new class of applications, but Longhorn doesn't have to be a part of the equation. (Microsoft evangelists do claim that anyone who sees WinFX-created apps on both Windows XP and Longhorn will definitely want to be running Longhorn).

Microsoft still has the capacity to generate excitement with an overhaul to the user interface. Microsoft chairman and chief software architect Bill Gates shows great enthusiasm for UI improvements, which were originally reserved for Windows "Blackcomb," the follow-on to Longhorn. Little has been seen of the Sidebar, RSS feeds, rumored 3D Windows UI or other related features for some time.

Anything less than an intuitive, useful and exciting new interface, however, will probably fall flat. Consider all the corporate customers who keep their Windows XP desktops switched to the "Classic" interface.

As things stands now, many of the reasons to upgrade to Longhorn look to be the same as the reasons to upgrade to Windows XP now -- security should be much improved, wireless access will probably be better, support is easier to get on the latest version, stability should be even better and the latest hardware features will be exploited. In short, all of the boring, practical reasons that people slowly but surely migrate to the next Windows OS.

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That said, two years is a long time to the release of a new operating system. The potential for some sort of industry sideswipe is huge. Remember the nearly complete feature list of Windows Server "Whistler" before the worm outbreaks of the summer of 2001? I don't either. Suddenly security became Windows Server 2003's reason for being, and that was just a few months before the OS was supposed to ship. The subsequent response helped push back the release date by a year.

Other sideswipe possibilities besides security: customer and competitive pressure to decouple Internet Explorer, customer and competitive pressure to do something about licensing or a more user-friendly desktop version of Linux that begins to take real market share away from Windows.

Three years after Windows XP's release, the outlook for Longhorn is a lot less exciting than it was two years after XP shipped. But who knows what things will look like next year.

About the Author

Scott Bekker is editor in chief of Redmond Channel Partner magazine.


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