Unifying the Storm

Could WinFS be the salvation?

If you’ve ever enjoyed Connections, the show with James Burke that explains how, for example, a failed conquest in Egypt by Napoleon’s army led to the development of the PC, maybe you’ll understand why I’m excited by at least one aspect of Longhorn, the new OS Microsoft’s developing.

I might flip between 10 jobs in a 30-minute period. It’s the nature of my work. I have phone calls coming in, co-workers messaging me, emergency e-mail to respond to, projects I’m on deadline for. I can still remember the giddiness I felt 15 years ago when I first ran Quarterdeck’s DESQview on my DOS box because it allowed me to switch between tasks easily—thereby making me incredibly efficient. (I didn’t have a Windows-capable PC at the time.)

In that one regard, Windows hasn’t really improved on my early experience in task-switching. But, boy, could I use it. It bugs me that my computer can’t help make the kinds of connections I can with just a moment’s thought. For example, a meeting this week might bring up a particular topic, which we covered in a Web-only news story sometime last year, which generated reader response gathered in this folder in Outlook, which led us to add a new question to that salary survey kept in a relational database and thereby generated an idea for a new e-book. It would please me to no end to be able to have my software make those connections and bring up all those disparate pieces of data into a folder where I could peruse them on demand.

WinFS (Windows Future Storage or Store), the technology being bolted onto NTFS in “Longhorn,” sounds like it may get me closer. According to the transcripts of Bill Gates’ keynote at the PDC in Los Angeles, Microsoft’s Hillel Cooperman demoed the “self organization” capabilities of WinFS, in which relationships were created among items of every variety. To counter the argument that one could set up the same effect using folders creatively (and fill each with everything related to a specific topic), Cooperman drilled in and out of topics from multiple directions. A single reference could populate a hundred logical views. Hopped-up pivot tables come to mind.

Of course, the magic appears to depend on meta-tags, and if it requires me to do much definition or keyword work on my end, the system will simply be another feature that I never get around to using.

Microsoft featured James Burke in a keynote at a conference a couple of years back. Burke gave a bit of a muddled demonstration of a technology he’s keen on, called the KnowledgeWeb. According to its Web site, it’s “designed to present knowledge in a highly interconnected, holistic way that allows for an almost infinite number of paths of exploration between people, places, things, and events.” Now I know why Burke was hired to speak. He has a vision of what Microsoft wants to achieve in WinFS. I hope they get there, and fast. I’ve got some ideas that I could use some help on bringing into focus.

About the Author

Dian L. Schaffhauser is a freelance writer based in Northern California.

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