With the release of Microsoft’s Service Pack 2 for Windows XP later this month, users will be re-evaluating their upgrade plans.
Existing Windows XP desktops are likely to receive the SP2 update, while Windows 2000 users have the choice of moving directly to XP SP2 or waiting until Longhorn, the next major Windows release arrives.
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Service Pack 2 is widely viewed as a significant update, offering greater security and bundling more functions into the operating system. More importantly, it will offer a taste of things to come from Microsoft: the eagerly-awaited operating system codenamed Longhorn.
This, the next version of Windows, has been described by Microsoft chairman and chief software architect Bill Gates as the biggest product release for Microsoft since Windows 95.
"[Longhorn] is going to be a very big release: the biggest release of this decade," he told a developers conference in October 2003. "We are tackling three different areas: the fundamentals - that means the security - the auto-installation and applications not interfering with each other."
Currently scheduled to be released in 2007, Longhorn will alter the way the operating system functions and integrates with other applications.
Neil Macehiter, research director at analyst firm Ovum, said, "Longhorn is a very significant release for Microsoft and it does change some of the rules of what an operating system does. Microsoft is fundamentally re-architecting the operating system so it can deliver more sophisticated capability than before."
Planned new features include a new mechanism for storing files, technology to help different applications to talk to each other, probably using web services technology and speech recognition.
Meanwhile, Longhorn development rumbles on. In June, Microsoft released an early version of the operating system to subscribers to its developers network and to WinHEC 2004 conference delegates.
"The WinHEC build represents the next milestone of Longhorn on the way to the final release," said Chris Sells, content strategist for the MSDN Longhorn Developer Centre.
He said Microsoft plans to provide regular updates of Longhorn code to the developer community to obtain their feedback.
Although Longhorn is still three years away, IT directors and their system software developers can begin to review the operating system and plan their IT strategy.
The Longhorn developer community is already producing ideas for new applications and initiatives using the next version of Windows.
Third-party suppliers are working on ways to combine voice, video and data in the next-generation graphical interface, Avalon. They are also developing voice functions for speech-to-text conversion and a new graphic interface called Facetop. This appears to project the end-user’s face over the windows and applications they are working on.
But the changes to the platform may be too ambitious, according to some industry commentators who are sceptical about the potential take-up of Longhorn.
Annette Jump, principal analyst at Gartner, said, "Microsoft is not very good at communicating the roadmap or sticking to it."
Longhorn’s beta and final release dates have slipped already, with final availability being delayed a year to the first half of 2007, she said, adding that most companies will wait a further year before adopting it.
"Microsoft is keeping very quiet about Longhorn. This could present a problem of how to persuade customers to sign up to licences if they don’t know when it is out," said Jump.
Gates has talked about the Longhorn wave: a number of Longhorn products are being released before and after the operating system, although they will be aligned with the core operating system. Products such as Visual Studio 2005 (code-named Whidbey) and SQL Server 2005 (Yukon) will come out before Longhorn, but will contain some of its technology. Next-generation products, such as Visual Studio, code-named Orcas, are expected post-Longhorn.
Microsoft builds three pillars for Longhorn
- Pillar one is a common communications framework, called Indigo, which can control the way different applications communicate and share data. Indigo works out how to package information and the best channel on which to send it, whether that is web services through the .net infrastructure, by using peer-to-peer technology or instant messaging.
"All the investment Microsoft is making into web services will appear in Indigo," said Neil Macehiter, research director at Ovum.
Although the changes Microsoft is making will have benefits, he said, they will also affect the fundamental design of other applications. "The implications for Microsoft’s other technologies are very significant: where, for example, does Microsoft Exchange store its information if you change the operating system’s file system?"
- Pillar two is a storage mechanism for files in the operating system, which will sit on top of the NT File System. Microsoft is tying certain elements of relational databases and the data exchange standard XML into the data filing system to give users more control over how they store and access their data. It will use a common store for data such as contact information which can be accessed centrally by Outlook and an instant messaging client.
Macehiter said, "WinFS essentially allows users to define more about how they want information to be stored and the relationship between data. You can build up some sophisticated ways to manage your data. Microsoft is exploiting the expertise it has in Sequel Server and relational databases and applying it to the operating system."
- The final pillar is a graphical user interface, dubbed Avalon, which has 3D and 2D elements and features such as transparent Windows.
Microsoft has chosen a design-led, rather than a programmer-led approach and will allow the application developer to define what they want to see on the desktop, or how they want an application to look, and the code will match it, said Macehiter.
"Apple and Macromedia have been doing this for a long while and successfully. Microsoft is clearly trying to extend the desktop and reassert the position of the rich client, as opposed to the browser," he said.
The image revamp will also help companies to deal with the vast amounts of data produced by IT systems, Microsoft believes.
Another significant addition to Longhorn is the Dynamic Systems Initiative, which is akin to IBM’s adaptive and autonomic computing aspirations. Microsoft’s initiative can be used in a datacentre to automatically add and take away computing or storage resources as applications require, and manage the infrastructure as a whole.
However, complete resource automation through DSI is six- to eight years away, according to Microsoft.
Is Longhorn worth the wait?
Annette Jump, principal analyst at Gartner, said that for organisations using Windows 2000 rather than Windows XP, Longhorn may be their next standard platform, depending on when it arrives.
The main question users have to ask about Longhorn is whether it will be compatible with previous versions of Microsoft software such as Office, she added. Companies should talk to Microsoft’s software partners to see what they are doing about compatibility, she advised.
Ovum research director, Neil Macehiter, said users need to be clear about whether some of the more eye-catching features in Longhorn will be useful for businesses.
"There needs to be a clear business case for Longhorn. Is a 3D desktop useful for a call centre? Probably not. There are compelling capabilities, such as [messaging framework] Indigo, especially for companies that do a lot of application development. And I understand there will be a version available that runs on Windows Server 2003."