Longhorn's loss may be some users' gain

Microsoft's retreat from its Longhorn ambitions and its decision to add several Longhorn technologies to Windows XP and Windows...

Microsoft's retreat from its Longhorn ambitions and its decision to add several Longhorn technologies to Windows XP and Windows Server 2003 may rob the next Windows release of its glamour, but users and developers gain more than they lose.

The next Windows release will ship in 2006, but without the WinFS unified storage system, Microsoft said.

WinFS is one of the three key components of Longhorn that Microsoft had hyped. It uses relational engine technology and promises to make it easier for users to find related files, documents and e-mail messages on their computers and on corporate networks.

Microsoft now plans to deliver WinFS, which is based on technology from its forthcoming SQL Server 2005 database, as an operating system update after the Longhorn release.

While the WinFS delay may be a loss, the promise to offer key Longhorn technologies for existing operating systems and a commitment to deliver Longhorn in 2006 are important gains, analysts and users said.

Support in Windows XP and Windows Server 2003 for the Avalon graphics system, the WinFX application programming model and the Indigo communications subsystem will allow developers to target a much larger installed base. Previously, Microsoft had only committed to making Indigo available for earlier operating systems, which potentially meant that applications developed using WinFX and Avalon would only run on Longhorn PCs.

"This is a smart move," said Dave Burke, a senior software developer at LLI Technologies, an engineering and construction company.

"Maybe individual presentation and communication subsystems don't generate the hype of Longhorn, but to developers who live in the real world of incremental technological evolution, this is welcome news."

Al Gillen, a research director at IDC, agreed. "Microsoft has a really large installed base, so any time they bring out a new technology, it has to be made available to the older systems, because if they don't, they have a really large installed base of incompatible systems," he said.

On WinFS, Gillen said there is no reason to come down hard on Microsoft.

"Yes they pulled it out, but they are going to deliver it as a component," he said. "They did the same thing with Windows Server 2003, where some components were not delivered with the product but were delivered right afterwards. At some level you have to give them some space and let them deliver the product and bring out pieces that go on to it."

The absence of WinFS does not really matter for some users anyway. "NTFS is fine for what we do," said Thomas Smith, manager of desktop engineering at a large company.

"I don't see us moving to Longhorn for the file system, I see us upgrading for reasons such as security."

Aras Memisyazici, a systems administrator at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, did not say if he was eagerly awaiting the capabilities promised by WinFS but said he does not take any Microsoft promise at face value.

"We all know how Microsoft promises go: When the product finally comes out it is not going to be anywhere near what they initially promised it would be," he said.

The delay of WinFS and the decoupling of WinFX, Avalon and Indigo from Longhorn does take most of the glamor from the hyped operating system. It will no longer be a "big bang" release for the company, which is what Microsoft executives had promoted it as.

"The name Longhorn is going to mean something completely different now. It is just going to be the next Windows release," said Rob Helm, research director at Directions on Microsoft.

Microsoft has not shipped a new client operating system since 2001, when it released Windows XP. PC makers are eager to see Microsoft release Longhorn to drive new PC sales. Most users do not load a new operating system onto existing hardware, but instead buy new computers with the new operating system, according to analysts and users.

In addition, Microsoft's commitment to make Longhorn compatible with older Windows versions by updating the operating system with technologies previously reserved for Longhorn may help users decide to upgrade to Windows XP and Windows Server 2003, Helm said.

"It makes sense for users to get on Windows XP and Windows Server 2003, knowing that they will be able to get most of the new features that Microsoft intends to deliver between now and about 2008," Helm said.

Microsoft first publicly talked about the planned Longhorn features at last October's Professional Developers Conference held in Los Angeles.

Company chairman and chief software architect Bill Gates hyped the operating system as "the biggest release of this decade, the biggest since Windows 95" and called WinFS a "Holy Grail".

Microsoft plans to release a first beta of Longhorn in mid-2005. A Longhorn Server is planned for release in 2007.

Joris Evers writes for IDG News Service

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