Longhorn stampede begins

16 Feb 2004

With no major release of its Windows desktop or server products on the cards for at least another two years, Microsoft executives have taken to the road to discuss Longhorn – the next release of the Windows client which won’t ship before 2006.

In recent days analysts have suggested revenues at Microsoft could be hit by this release schedule as Windows constitutes such a large proportion of its licence revenues. The main aim of the briefings that have been held in various European cities this month, including Dublin, is to inform developers about the changes that Longhorn will bring and how they can begin to write products now that will be available when it is released.

Developer support for Longhorn will be essential for Microsoft as the applications available for Windows have always driven sales. Microsoft chairman Bill Gates has gone on record as saying that Longhorn will be the company’s biggest launch since Windows 95 which was introduced with a massive global marketing push.

There are four main elements to Longhorn that Microsoft is emphasising, all of which are still at a fairly high level of technical abstraction. The new user interface which will determine what users will see on screen has been codenamed Avalon. Longhorn will also have a new file system called WinFS which is built on top of the current NTFS, but will enable users to find data more easily on large hard drives. Of particular interest to developers are the last two innovations – a web services based communications infrastructure codenamed Indigo and a successor to the Win32 application programming interface (API) called WinFX.

Rather than just blow its own trumpet Microsoft has employed the services of independent consultant and author David Chappell to give the keynote addresses at the European Longhron events. According to Chappell, Avalon and WinFS will mean the biggest changes for Windows users.

“Avalon will mean designers and developers will be able to work together better,” said Chappell. “It will be easier for user interface designers to deliver a user interface description to a developer to implement.” One of the key tools for enabling designers and programmers to work together is XAML (eXtensible Application Markup Language, pronounced “Zammel”). It’s an XML-based language that will enable designers to use HTML-like techniques to create interfaces for applications. Chappell expects XAML to be used to create native Windows applications that can be interacted with through a browser and use a web metaphor for navigation. The result is applications that are easier to use and require less training for staff.

Most PC users would be hard pressed to tell you which particular file system their PC is running but WinFS will have a major impact on end users. WinFS will change the way people store and interact with their files and may in fact be the element that has the biggest impact on users. Chappell suggested that the current method of saving files in a hierarchy of folders will not be efficient as hard disks swell in size and terabyte disks on PCs become common. “With so much storage space and so many diverse data types how will you find things?” asked Chappell. “With WinFS you’ll be able to list all documents associated with a particular project and search for files by their attributes rather than specifying a folder to search in.”

For such a scheme to work, users will be required to enter data about each folder they create but Chappel suggested there will be many ways to do this in addition to manual entry. Attributes can be dragged and dropped from other files and there will be mechanisms to automatically provide them – Chappell gave the example of CD playback software that queries the internet for information on any new CD that is played on the PC.

Indigo is the web services layer in Longhorn which will make it easy to link applications on a PC to web services on the net. Although no details of the delivery mechanism have been revealed, Microsoft has said that it will provide the same web services stack for Windows XP and Windows Server 2003. Chappell rejected suggestions that Microsoft’s embracing of open standards associated with web services is a change of tactic for the software giant. “Microsoft embraced the TCP standard [a method of connecting PCs to the Web] when it included it in Windows 95,” said Chappell. “The embrace of SOAP [a web services standard] is analogous – SOAP connects applications not just machines but the change we will see will be on the same magnitude.”

Microsoft has still not given any indication of what PC specification will be required to run Longhorn, but it’s safe to assume its introduction will cause a spike in hardware sales as upgraders purchase new machines capable of running the new operating system.

Chappel said it “will make sense for the machines available in 2006 so you can assume it will require a fairly powerful machine.” When drawn on what exact specifications this might involve, he said terabyte disk drives will be “do-able” while machines with one gigabyte of RAM are “likely” in 2006. Longhorn will be able to run programs designed for all previous releases of Windows and also its precursor DOS.

Over 500 developers registered to attend the Longhorn Developer Preview according to Maurice Martin, Microsoft Ireland’s developer & platform lead. The primary aim of the day was to ensure that organisations writing software that runs on Windows are doing so in such a way that optimises the new functions of Longhorn. Martin also said that it is still too early to be discussing Longhorn with IT professionals and others who are rolling out technology projects today. Developers have been issued with a pre-alpha version of Longhorn for evaluation purpose, but Martin compared the code to a building site with only the walls and floors in place.

Irish developers interested in finding out more about Longhorn should check out www.Microsoft.com‘s section about Longhorn.

By John Collins