Christmas Present: Longhorn Due By '06 Holiday

New technology called Metro, which is reliant on graphics technology and APIs that will ship with Longhorn, will preserve the formatting of documents created in Microsoft Office apps and print them faster, and with better fidelity, on compatible printers.
Microsoft plans to ship Longhorn in time for Christmas 2006, and the next version of Windows for PCs will include new technology code-named Metro for reading and printing documents without the software program that created them, Bill Gates, Microsoft's chairman and chief software architect, said at the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference in Seattle on Monday.

Microsoft plans to release a beta, or public test version of Longhorn--an operating system in the works for PCs and servers that includes new technologies for finding, viewing, and collaborating on documents and electronic media--this summer, Gates said during a keynote speech at the conference, an annual event Microsoft uses to disclose technical requirements for its software to makers of PCs and other computer hardware. A second beta edition is due before the final release, planned to be out in time for the holiday season next year.

During his speech, Gates called on stage Microsoft staffers to show new features for finding and organizing files. The company also showed technology called Metro, a file format based on XML that will preserve the formatting of documents created in Microsoft Office apps and print them faster, and with better fidelity, on compatible printers. It's reliant on graphics technology and APIs that will ship with Longhorn. Metro could also be a challenge to the Portable Document Format controlled by software maker Adobe Systems Inc., which last week said it would buy Macromedia Inc. for $3.4 billion in stock.

"If you look at Longhorn as a whole, it's very broad what we're doing," Gates said. "It's easy to say it's a next-generation platform." Microsoft plans to put more marketing behind Longhorn than any product in its history, Gates said. Microsoft distributed an early release of the operating system to the 2,800 engineers at the conference. It showed advanced features on stage during Gates' speech, including Windows folders that show snapshots of the documents they contain before they're opened and files that organize themselves based on keywords users type in.

Microsoft is trying to get hardware makers excited about building products that take advantage of Longhorn's features, as PC sales growth has slowed down compared with 1990s levels. Software developers also are increasingly learning and writing products based on Linux and other open-source software in addition to--or as opposed to--Windows. Still, PC sales are set to grow 10% this year, Gates said, which translates to 20 million more units than the industry sold last year. By 2008, the PC industry is expected to sell its 2 billionth machine, surpassing the 1 billion mark set in 2002. "Compared with 6 billion people on the planet, 2 billion is starting to get somewhere," Gates said. The PC, he said, is "the most important tool that's ever been created."

How much more useful Longhorn PCs will be is a question on the minds of many in the computer industry. Microsoft delayed a new file system called WinFS until after Longhorn, which means new searching and document-organization capabilities won't be available until after Longhorn ships. Over the summer, Microsoft said it would make access to other Longhorn technologies called Indigo, for calling Web services and writing peer-to-peer apps, and Avalon, for creating new kinds of on-screen graphics, available to users of today's versions of desktop and server-side Windows as well. "Maybe we hyped it up a little bit too much," Microsoft group product manager Greg Sullivan said in an interview before the conference. But "we're set up to pleasantly surprise people who don't have super-high expectations for Longhorn."

Under Longhorn's Hood
So what's left in Longhorn that's new? Gates showed a new graphical user interface, which Microsoft calls Aeroglass, that features transparent Windows. Developers also will be able to build "rich" Internet applications that behave with the speed of Windows apps using Microsoft's new WinFX application programming interfaces. A Microsoft staffer gave a lengthy demonstration of the ability to type keywords into the Windows Start menu in Longhorn to launch programs, and into a bar in Windows' main documents folder to find E-mail, documents, photos, and music files that match users' criteria. Microsoft also is developing the ability to search for RSS feeds and Web-history pages by keyword.

Data security is the No. 1 area of investment in Longhorn, Gates said, and the operating system will include features such as more curtailed administrative rights for users and the ability for IT departments to "quarantine" PCs connecting to a network remotely until they can be scanned for viruses. Microsoft on Monday also disclosed the requirements for PCs bought today and capable of being upgraded to Longhorn. Among the requirements, according to Sullivan: At least 512 Mbytes of memory, no low-end chips (such as Intel's Celeron or Advanced Micro Devices Inc.'s Sempron), and no integrated graphics chipsets.

PCs Get More Portable
To coincide with Longhorn, Microsoft is working on new shapes and sizes for PCs. "We're taking the PC and getting it into smaller, more convenient form factors," said Gates, who showed a prototype of an "ultraportable" machine as thick as 10 sheets of paper, with a 9-inch screen, capable of playing music and videos, making phone calls, and taking photos. Gates said he envisions the PC as a users' second system, and that Microsoft is aiming for a weight of one pound, all-day battery life, and a retail price of $800. There's also a "major new version" of Windows for Tablet PCs coming with the arrival of Longhorn, he said.

64-Bit Windows Arrives
Finally, Microsoft made 64-bit editions of Windows for clients and servers available Monday. "It's the base on which we will build Longhorn," Gates said. "It's a very big deal for us." Microsoft released Windows XP Professional x64 Edition and three editions of Windows Server 2003 x64--Standard, Enterprise, and Datacenter. Those work with extended 64-bit chips from Intel and AMD that also run 32-bit apps without slowing performance.

The computer industry is in the middle of a transition from 32- to 64-bit chips, Gates said, but this one will happen more quickly than similar shifts in the past. Nearly all Windows servers this year, and PCs next year, will support 64-bit operation, which greatly increases the amount of memory available to software programs, speeding performance. As far as software applications, terminal services and database apps will move fastest, on servers, followed by Web hosting and business apps, Gates said. On the client side, 64-bit Windows will appeal first to scientists and engineers, as well as also video editors and computer-game developers.

Customers will get 64-bit computing without a premium price, he added. "It's almost a feature you can take for granted." Sixty-four-bit Windows also can provide companies with greater data security by taking advantage of chips' "execute disable bit," which can block harmful code from running.