Microsoft Scales Back Longhorn Plans

Microsoft this week said it will sacrifice some key advances it had planned for Longhorn so it can deliver the successor to Windows XP in 2006.

The next Windows release won't ship with the WinFS unified storage system, one of the three key components of Longhorn, as outlined by Microsoft at its Professional Developers Conference in October last year.

"We do have an ambitious vision for the future of Windows. Today's announcements reflect a change in how we reach that vision in a way we think that will be good for enterprise customers and developers in particular," says Greg Sullivan, a lead product manager at Microsoft.

The PDC was the first time Microsoft talked publicly about many of the features it planned for Longhorn. Company Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates hyped the operating system as "the biggest release of this decade, the biggest since Windows 95" and called WinFS a "Holy Grail."

Evolutionary, Not Revolutionary?

Microsoft in April said it was clipping some minor features in Longhorn in order to get a beta version out next year, but that the product would still have all the major components it discussed at PDC, including WinFS. But after several delays in the development of Longhorn, the operating system is now looking more like an evolutionary release of Windows instead of the "big bang" revolution the software maker made it out to be.

"We've had to make some trade-offs to deliver the features corporate customers, consumers and OEMs are asking for in a reasonable time frame," Jim Allchin, group vice president of Microsoft's Platforms Group says in a statement. Microsoft uses the term OEMs, or original equipment manufacturers, to refer to PC makers.

Simply said, Microsoft was overly ambitious in its vision for Longhorn, according to Rob Helm, research director at Directions on Microsoft in Kirkland, Washington. "At the PDC in 2003, Microsoft presented a concept that was bigger than they could deliver," he says.

Microsoft now plans to deliver WinFS after it releases Longhorn as an update to the operating system, Sullivan says. The storage system will be in beta testing when Longhorn becomes available in 2006, he says.

WinFS is built on top of the current Windows NTFS and uses relational engine technology from Microsoft's forthcoming SQL Server 2005 database. The storage system promises to make it easier for users to find documents and e-mail messages, for example, by tagging those with XML (Extensible Markup Language) metadata.

"The notion of a full relational store that is fully exposed via APIs is what WinFS will bring, but absent WinFS we can deliver very compelling end-user scenarios that include desktop full-text search," Sullivan says. "It is true that when we get that full relational search it will enable new scenarios that go beyond search."

XP Updates

Together with the release of Longhorn, Microsoft this week says it will offer updates to Windows XP and Windows Server 2003 to support the Avalon graphics system, as well as the Longhorn communications subsystem dubbed Indigo and the WinFX application programming model in those older operating system products.

Support for Avalon, Indigo, and WinFX in Windows XP and Windows Server 2003 will allow software makers to target a much larger installed base. Previously Microsoft had only said it would make Indigo available for earlier operating systems, which potentially meant that applications developed for Longhorn would only run on Longhorn systems.

With WinFS ripped out of Longhorn and Indigo, WinFX and Avalon brought down to Windows Server 2003 and Windows XP, Longhorn has lost its glare as a major new Windows release, said Directions on Microsoft's Helm.

"To me it looks like Longhorn as such does not exist anymore. There will be a 2006 Windows release that will have that code name, but the three feature sets that Microsoft originally presented for Longhorn won't be tied to it anymore," Helm says.

Microsoft expects to release a first official beta version of Longhorn in mid-2005, Sullivan says.

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