The Lowdown On Longhorn

In sessions at last week's Windows Hardware Engineering Conference and in interviews with Microsoft officials, CMP Pipeline Editor Scot Finnie got some deep insight into the technical details of the upcoming Longhorn operating system. Here's his report.

Scot Finnie, Contributor

May 2, 2005

16 Min Read

[Editor's Note: The following report was prepared by CMP's Pipeline Editor Scot Finnie, as part of his independent "Scot's Newsletter."]

I returned from WinHEC with a recent build (5048) of Windows Longhorn. In sessions at the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) and a private interview with Microsoft Windows Product Manager Greg Sullivan, I learned quite a bit about Longhorn worth updating you about right away. Here are the high points:

Release Timing. Longhorn, Microsoft's code name for the next version of Windows, is expected to ship at the end of 2006, in time for the December holiday season. You may recall that Windows XP shipped in the same time frame in 2001. Microsoft needs to wrap everything up on the front side of October to ensure that the finished product will be in the pipeline by December. Published reports say that the current target date for Beta 1 of Windows Longhorn is June 30, 2005. But Microsoft officials tell me privately that early to mid July is a safer bet. Longhorn will have a second major beta and if it follows true to form, it'll move into release candidates (RCs) sometime in the summer of 2006. Roughly speaking, major betas are separated by about six months, so figure Beta 2 by early next year. Microsoft is stating openly that Beta 1 will not be 100% feature complete. With history as a guide, it's likely that at least a handful of new features will also be checked in after Beta 2. Even so, Beta 2 is when a lot of features Microsoft has been talking about get real for the first time. You can expect reviews of both Beta 1 and Beta 2 in Scot's Newsletter. I'll also be covering the release candidates.

Still An Ambitious Upgrade. Contrary to earlier reports, Windows Longhorn remains an ambitious upgrade of the OS. There are a lot of brand spanking new parts underneath the next version of Windows. The new presentation subsystem, code-named Avalon, is still there, despite rumors that it might be trimmed back or even cut out. The new communications subsystem, code-named Indigo, is still planned. The new WinFX APIs (application programming interfaces) are still in there. The new file system, WinFS, will not ship with Longhorn, but as Microsoft announced last year, it intends to ship WinFS at the same time it ships Windows Longhorn Server — probably in late 2007 or early 2008. For more information on Windows Longhorn, see my coverage of the PDC2003 alpha release in Inside Longhorn: The Next Version of Windows (Scot's Newsletter) and Making Sense Of Windows Longhorn (PC Today). The look and feel has changed, and for the better. But near as I can tell, much of what I wrote back then still pertains.

Based On Server 2003 Code. Windows Longhorn for the desktop will be based on an upgrade of the Windows Server 2003 code base, not the Windows XP code. Microsoft claims that this will make the next desktop version of Windows notably more stable than Windows XP.

Ain't Nobody's 64-Bitness. You probably heard that Microsoft shipped the 64-bit versions of Windows XP Professional and all flavors of Windows Server 2003 last week, during WinHEC. When it is released at the end of 2006, Windows Longhorn will simultaneously ship both 32-bit and 64-bit versions. I hope to report in detail on 64-bit Windows XP Pro as well as review a brand new sub-$1,000 64-bit desktop PC that HP debuted at WinHEC. (Hewlett-Packard says I'm on the list for an evaluation unit.) Microsoft also gave me a copy of Windows XP Pro x64, but I don't have an available 64-bit PC to test with.

There are a few things you need to know about 64-bit Windows. Existing 32-bit Win apps will run fine under 64-bit Windows, according to Microsoft, which also stresses that performance improvements are clearly apparent during highly data-intensive tasks, that memory utilization is also much improved, and 64-bit Windows supports up to 128GB of RAM (if you can afford it). The software giant offered a convincing demonstration of 64-bit SQL Server's advantages during Bill Gates' keynote address. I also saw private vendor demos--most notably one by a special effects and animation company SoftImage--that made me a believer.

For most enterprise Windows Server applications, eventually upgrading to Windows Server 2003 x64 (or Windows Longhorn Server x64) is practically a no-brainer. But the downsides of 64-bit Windows on the desktop are significant. Windows XP Pro x64 does not support 16-bit applications, including 16-bit installers. Many 32-bit Windows apps have 16-bit setup routines. The big Achilles' heel, though, is that all device drivers, including peripherals, must be fully 64-bit. That means that if your printer is older than a couple of years, a 64-bit driver probably won't be contained in Windows XP Pro x64's driver pack, and its manufacturer may be slow to release a 64-bit driver. In fact, there's every likelihood that no such driver will be forthcoming. I'm the classic example of someone who might get into trouble. I'm still using a trusty HP LaserJet 5MP purchased in 1995.

Finally, in case this isn't obvious, 64-bit Windows requires a 64-bit CPU and other components. Most PC makers have been shipping 64-bit hardware for a while, especially in server or dual-core configurations. Microsoft also reports it will not be selling 64-bit Windows at retail; you'll have to buy new hardware or possess a volume license agreement to get it.

Secure Startup And TPM 1.2. One subsystem that is clearly different is NGSCB (Next Generation Secure Computing Base), a hardware-and-software-based security technology that was planned to be a part of Longhorn. Microsoft stopped using that terminology a while back. Instead of NGSCB, Microsoft is now talking about building in support for TPM (Trusted Platform Module). TPM 1.1 is the stuff of "embedded security chips" found in IBM and HP computers. According to partner sources, Microsoft will support TPM 1.2 in Longhorn. Also helping to replace NGSCB is a Longhorn functionality Microsoft calls Secure Startup, which is designed to protect PCs from unauthorized use. For more information about Secure Startup, see Microsoft's Secure Startup - Full Volume Encryption: Technical Overview.

Instant-on, Hibernate, Fast Resume. The details about this were sketchy at WinHEC — at least, in all the sessions I attended. Just how fast might a computer turn on under Longhorn? I found one report that said "two seconds," but I don't for minute believe that will be the reality. Microsoft is clearly committed to improving boot, hibernate (or "sleep"), and resume times. But this isn't the first time the software giant has been committed to that notion. Not that long ago, the same idea was tagged "OnNow." It's like the Holy Grail of PC computing. Hopefully Microsoft, and the hardware makers, can achieve marked improvement boot times in Longhorn. We'll see.

The Hybrid Hard Drive. One of the more interesting stories emanating from WinHEC is the hybrid hard drive. Take your standard SATA hard drive and integrate a sizable chunk of NAND flash memory serving as an onboard cache buffer. Samsung is one of the companies identified as being the supplier of the flash technology. Microsoft is building support for the hybrid hard drive as well as new software caching technology into Windows Longhorn. Why is this cool? The big pay-off will be for notebook drives, especially while running on battery. Since hard drives are often set to power down after only a few minutes, notebook users frequently run into the huge latency required to spin the drive back up after it turns off, even to save a small bit of data. The hybrid hard drive flash technique will mean the drive will be able to stay powered down for as much as an hour of regular use, powering up for less than a minute during that time to save the contents of the write buffer to the disk. The flash technology may also be employed to facilitate faster boot times and possibly more rapid hibernations and resumes under Longhorn. Ivan K. Greenberg, director, strategic marketing, Samsung Semiconductor, estimates that the typical hard drive uses 10-15% of the power a notebook sucks up, and as other technologies reduce their power consumption, that percentage is likely to rise. Samsung was apparently integral in developing this technology, but several other companies, including hard drive makers, are also interested. So long as the NAND read speeds are fast enough, look for this technology to fly. Currently the 2.5-inch format hard drives are what's being targeted, but can 1.8-inch drives be far behind if this succeeds?

Desktop Search Baked In. Looks like I have to eat my words a bit. Although I still think performance may be an issue, Microsoft decided to incorporate pretty much every aspect of the search-based interface it described back in the fall of 2003 at its Professional Developer's Conference. How? This is the dicey part. Instead of WinFS with SQL database search, Microsoft is simply adding a few file system attributes to NTFS (which was always capable of this) that allow files to bear keyword metadata. Microsoft will probably also implement some sort of upgrade of Windows XP's text-indexing service to facilitate desktop searches of all or most of the data files on your system — including Web pages you've viewed and pages you've accessed via your RSS Reader. It's not clear yet what application data files this facility will support, although you can bet that Microsoft apps will figure prominently.

One of the cooler aspects of Longhorn's file search functionality is something called virtual folders. A virtual folder is a folder that contains files just like any other folder. But those files don't actually reside in that folder on your hard drive. Instead, they are shortcuts to files that are grouped together by a contextual commonality. For example, they all share the same author (or file creator). They were all created on the same day. They all have the same word in their file name, or the same file format. Longhorn will come with some preset virtual folders, but you can also create your own. By adding manual keywords, you can also create virtual folders that share a specific keyword.

Back to the underpinnings for a moment, it's important to keep in mind that XP's text-indexing facility is dog-slow, turned off by default, and pretty useless when it's turned on. Greg Sullivan alluded to the possibility that search technology, probably derived from MSN Search, would be employed instead. I hope they do something to make this thing go, or the feature will fall flat. Also, whatever search technology they employ, Sullivan says it will be turned on automatically. Taking advantage of many or all of these search-based features is also likely to require the use of the NTFS file system (as opposed to FAT32). Microsoft hasn't even said whether Windows Longhorn will support FAT32. More than likely it will continue to be able to access FAT32 volumes, but it is very likely that many more aspects of the forthcoming OS will require NTFS than is the case in Windows XP.

One of the trade-offs for Longhorn's search-based user interface is that, without WinFS and the SQL database search technology, it's unlikely, according to Greg Sullivan, that Microsoft will be able to incorporate background indexing that automatically appends keyword metadata to the files on your system based on the contents of those files. That means the only way keywords can be added to your files is manually. That greatly reduces the usefulness of this tool — because most of us aren't going to get around to manually entering keywords, especially not for file types like Web pages and email messages. The whole point of the new search features is to help you find your data quickly. Having to run a full-text search through all your data every time you want to find something isn't quick. It's much faster to search metadata than it is to do a full-text search. Microsoft will likely get this right after WinFS becomes an integral part of the OS, but as I wrote last year, we might all have to wait for the version of Windows after Longhorn to see this fully buttoned up.

How do you do that? Enter another new feature. If you've never opened Microsoft Word's File > Properties dialog, I suggest taking a few seconds to try that if you have Microsoft Word handy. Imagine a better version of Word's Properties sheet that you can turn on as a pane that stretches across the bottom of any Windows explorer/folder window. When you select any file in the folder window, the file properties pane displays several bits of data about that file. One of the things it displays is keyword metadata, and you can edit this field and permanently save new keywords to the files.

Even without automatic metadata appending, there are several cool things that Microsoft's new search-based interface can do. As in the PDC2003 version of Longhorn, file and folder icons scale. As they scale larger in size, the icons depict details about the contents of the file or folder. The feature supports a wide range of file formats. XP offers a glimpse of this functionality with folders that contain images files when you turn on the Thumbnail view, but it's very slow, not as detailed, and only supports images. Let's hope Longhorn's vector-based graphics-rendering presentation subsystem is able to do this much faster. Microsoft calls this set of features file/folder visualization.

There are several new aspects of Longhorn's desktop search feature set, and I'm skipping over a couple of them but will to this topic and cover it more thoroughly when I can show you pics, because that helps. One last search-based feature worth mentioning is the ability to search your entire hard drive for data by typing keywords into a search field. As you type in words, or even partial words, the number of files in the folder winnows down. It's kind of a low-tech variation on the theme that I bet gets used a lot more than some of the other stuff.

Limited User Account as the Default. Much has been made about the lack of restrictions on default users and the awkward logon system of previous versions of Windows. Microsoft has not yet supplied many details about where it's going with this, but has said repeatedly that the default user will no longer be Administrator level. (Linux users are probably smiling right now.) You will be able to expand the privileges of the default user account, but you'll have to know a thing or two about how this works to do so. Microsoft is also trying to get application makers to configure their software installations so that the default behavior is to install the app to the current user only, not every user on the machine. The option to install to all users on a system should be there, but should be just that, an advanced option.

Goodies Onboard. Windows Longhorn will contain both an RSS Reader and at least some anti-spyware protection. Internet Explorer (IE) 7.0 also goes into Beta 1 this summer (not clear yet whether it will be in Longhorn Beta 1), and I'll eat my hat if Microsoft doesn't add tabbed browsing and a few other things. IE 7.0 will ship either before or with Windows Longhorn. Microsoft has said they will not ship major releases of IE separately from major Windows releases, so I guess it will ship simultaneously. The world could sure use an improved IE well before the end of next year, though. Another addition will be a vastly improved facility for migrating data and applications from one PC to another. The File Transfer Wizard in XP is nice idea, but it's not really a great solution for the people who need it most. It's not very smart. I was given no details on this utility other than it will be included in Longhorn.

The Metro Format. Microsoft is releasing a new document format and printer page-description language called Metro. Metro is aimed at Adobe's PDF document format and PostScript page-description language. Metro is also, though, tied to Longhorn's new 3D, vector-based presentation manager. Microsoft is creating a unified image display, portability, and printing solution. I believe this is the first time the company has ever made that a serious target. At one time, Microsoft attempted to take on Adobe with TrueType fonts, but this isn't just about fonts — it's about all phases of displaying, making electronic, and printing both fonts and images. Adobe's solution has always been expensive and somewhat lacking for Windows users. Many people (including yours truly) find PDFs annoying, overly large (both visually and in file size), and not very useful to the end user. It's way too soon to say whether Microsoft got this right. But one thing's sure, it's a good idea, so long as Microsoft doesn't try to exact a similarly high premium to take advantage of Metro.

Little Niceties. If you've ever muttered an epithet about the cute little dog in XP's Search dialog or Microsoft's annoying propensity to name everything My ... Something, Longhorn will make you smile. Ding dong the dog is dead, and there will be no My Anythings in Windows Longhorn.

My favorite new little feature, though, is a souped up version of the Start Menu Run dialog. Longhorn adds a command-line program-launching field right above the Start button on the Start menu. Want Notepad? Just click Start, click into the new program search field, and type Notepad. The new feature can also auto-complete for you. This facility can search your entire hard drive for .EXE files, so any program installed on your system or any executable in the Windows or other folders is fair game. It's so obvious, you wonder why it wasn't there before. Sometimes it's the little things that make all the difference.

A decision about another little nicety you may not agree with, but I do. Microsoft has axed the "Sidebar" from the 5048 and later builds of Longhorn. I've written fairly extensively about the Sidebar in the past. Although the official word is that Microsoft is still considering what, if anything, to do with Sidebar, scuttlebutt has it that this overly large piece of graphical interface has hit the scrap heap, never to return. I hope that's the case because I'm a big fan of screen real estate, and even though Sidebar was configurable, it just became another big thing to manage on your desktop. But I also hope that some of the programlets that it housed will find another, less intrusive way to be added by users to customize their Windows experience. Perhaps Microsoft could employ transparency to soak them into the desktop itself?

More Longhorn In Upcoming Issues There are several other aspects of the new OS I want to detail for you, especially the current state of the Avalon presentation subsystem and also the smart ways that Microsoft is already developing a user interface around transparency. I'm very impressed with Avalon. Don't think of this as visual window dressing. It's going to have an impact on how you think of and work with Windows — assuming you have the hardware to make it go. More detail as I have time to do the research and preparation.

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