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From Here To Longhorn

Microsoft moves to address user concerns with new products and strategies due over the coming year
Schmidt agrees with Gates on one point: If Arch Chemicals can reduce the time and effort devoted to infrastructure security, the freed–up resources will go into new business–technology projects. "There's a ton of things we can begin to deploy," Schmidt says. "Every time we have to do a patch, it cuts into our ability to make these things happen. As the [patch] automation becomes available, I'll jump on it as quickly as I can."

If and when businesses shake their concerns with Windows security, Gates is ready with a new concept that he calls "seamless computing." It involves using Web services to break down technical and process boundaries-device to device, application to application, business to business-to create fluid information flows. It's a safe bet Microsoft's Yukon database and Whidbey development environment, both due next year, will be presented as tools to help build that infrastructure.

Then comes Longhorn. The next–generation operating system, previewed in late October at Microsoft's Professional Developers Conference, will feature the first new Windows application programming interface in a decade and a new file system, called WinFS, that leverages Yukon's relational database to manage files, E–mail, and Web pages. Longhorn also will include a new communications subsystem and presentation graphics layer (see "A Platform Shift In Search Of A Killer App," Nov. 3, 2003).

All this translates into the promise of compelling new applications and productivity boosters. One example: At Comdex, Gates demonstrated prototype data–retrieval technology, destined for Longhorn, that helps users find previously accessed information stored in a variety of locations and formats. Improvements in Windows' search capabilities "could be the next big breakthrough," says Michael Cherry, an analyst with Directions On Microsoft. Longhorn also will incorporate an Information Agent that helps manage a user's communications based on preferences.

It's enough to get some business–technology professionals excited about the possibilities. "We're going to be working with Microsoft closely on some of their new products," says Charlie Orndorff, VP of infrastructure services with Crossmark Inc., which provides sales and marketing services to consumer–goods companies. On Microsoft's progress with patch management, though, Orndorff says, "I've heard talk about it. But I haven't seen it delivered yet."

Jeff Nigriny, chief security officer with Exostar LLC, an online exchange, likes SUS 1.0 and applauds Microsoft's quality–control efforts, but he's unimpressed with other aspects of Microsoft's near–term strategy. Nigriny calls the company's secure–by–default approach, in which once–active Windows features have to be manually engaged, a "mistake" that will lead to deployment confusion. And he sees problems with Microsoft's shield–the–perimeter approach, which involves creating a hardened network exterior to protect vulnerable PCs within. "It's well known in the security community that is not the way to solve the problem," he says.

A tough assessment from someone who claims he has no bias against Windows. "I think I'm actually pretty pro–Microsoft," Nigriny says.

The obvious challenge for Microsoft is to impress its fans-let alone the critics that Gates mentioned-with the company's advances in security. Until then, Longhorn will seem like a long way off. --with George V. Hulme