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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