4 min read

Building A Case For Longhorn

Microsoft group VP Jim Allchin says security and new capabilities will set this operating system apart. But first, there's 64-bit Windows.
Longhorn will be the most-secure versions of Windows ever, will be easier to use and manage, and will cost less to operate. It will sport impressive advances in how files are managed, organized, and displayed. And Microsoft's next-generation operating system shouldn't be delayed--it's on schedule to ship in the second half of 2006.

Now it's up to Microsoft's Windows development team to deliver on those promises, made this week by group VP Jim Allchin. The product update comes amid growing questions about what features will make it into Longhorn and why customers should feel compelled to plan for it.

Last August, Microsoft dropped one of Longhorn's most anticipated new features, the WinFS file system, and said it would retrofit two other Longhorn advances--the Indigo communications services and Avalon graphics system--to work within Windows XP and Windows Server 2003. In doing so, the company diminished Longhorn's gee-whiz factor, something it now needs to fix. "The question is how Longhorn can add value to this space and take it to the next level," Allchin says.

The answer: Longhorn will come with "unrivaled security and safety" and come packed with new features. Even without WinFS, Longhorn will let users stack, rearrange, filter, and create lists of PC files, including multimedia files and RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feeds. Improvements in data visualization will go beyond today's search capabilities, Allchin says.

Everyday challenges such as finding a new printer or connecting to a projector will be hassle-free for users, while system administrators will find it easier to manage networks of Windows PCs. One cool new capability will be "auxiliary displays" that let a mobile user view, say, her calendar even when a laptop is turned off. Longhorn will also support the IPv6 protocol, making it possible to create "pure IPv6" networks.

But not everyone is impressed with the marketing message. "This is stuff you've heard from Microsoft before," Jupiter Research senior analyst Joe Wilcox says. "Where's the new stuff?" Microsoft should talk less about the problems that Longhorn fixes in current versions of Windows, Wilcox says, and more about entirely new things it will allow. "I'm sure Microsoft has many exciting new capabilities in Longhorn, so why not talk about those in a positive, aspirational sense?"

Allchin is optimistic his team can hit its delivery deadline because Windows programmers have begun to develop software as "components," part of the company's broader initiative to develop more-secure software. Testing that used to take 18 hours can now be done in less than an hour using new automation tools and processes. The result, Allchin says, is that Microsoft "will be able to achieve a much higher probability of being on time than we have in the past."

Microsoft wants to get the Longhorn client into the sales channel in time for the 2006 holiday shopping season. "Corporations will have it before then," he says. The rollout schedule calls for some Longhorn code to be released to hardware partners at Microsoft's upcoming WinHEC conference, followed by a beta release this summer. Longhorn server is slated to ship in 2007, though Allchin says it's possible it "may ship sooner."

Before any of that, Microsoft plans to deliver 64-bit versions of Windows XP and Windows Server 2003. The company hasn't disclosed availability of those upgrades--that formality is being saved for WinHEC--but their arrival is imminent. The 64-bit operating systems will make it possible to run much more data in a computer's physical memory, resulting in faster performance for applications that need that kind of help. "It's basically instant access to everything you ever wanted," Allchin says. "The whole system will be a thousand times faster."

It's unclear how many people need that kind of horsepower. Michael Cherry, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft, believes the needs of most users are satisfied by today's 32-bit desktop computers. "I'm not going to just drop everything in my Dell machine right now to run out and buy a new machine," he says.

Sixty-four-bit Windows has been tuned for hybrid 32-bit, 64-bit processors from Advanced Micro Devices Inc. and Intel. Allchin expects PCs and servers based on those chips to become the norm over the next two years.

Longhorn may let users choose between a 32-bit or 64-bit option when they boot up their computers for the first time. Says Allchin, "There's a high probability we will do that."