Will Longhorn be a bull's-eye for Microsoft?

Microsoft has talked up Longhorn, the next version of Windows, so much that industry expectations have rocketed. However, some...

Microsoft has talked up Longhorn, the next version of Windows, so much that industry expectations have rocketed. However, some reticence about its release date seems to imply some performance anxiety.

Last week, Microsoft chairman and chief executive Bill Gates confided to a meeting of financial analysts that Longhorn, the next major release of Windows, is "a bit scary".

Most would presume that he meant it would be scary for users, because Longhorn products will be very different from today's Microsoft software, he said.

But it appears the software is also causing some shivers at Microsoft.

Only last year Microsoft said Longhorn would be just another Windows client. However, it is now clear that the software stable is breeding a whole herd of long-horned cattle with a dose of .net web services hormones. "Longhorn is the next generation, it's a big bet for us," Gates said at last week's financial analyst meeting.

Microsoft executives have been guarded about the strategy surrounding Longhorn, but have indicated that adoption of .net and a drive to integration are mainstays.

The operating system will have a new file system and come out in client and server versions. At around the same time, Microsoft will release Longhorn versions of the Office System applications, Visual Studio developer tool and Microsoft Business Solutions products.

The results of the "Jupiter" project to unify BizTalk Server with two of Microsoft's other "E-Business Server" products, Commerce Server and Content Management Server, are set to be out at the same time.

"In the Longhorn case ... we're absolutely trying to think about not just the next generation of Windows, but the next generation of a whole series of products," Microsoft chief executive officer Steve Ballmer told analysts. "We believe in integrated innovation and we believe in the next generation of Windows."

Longhorn will have a "unified file system" called Windows File System, or WinFS, which will have "web services as sort of a built-in piece," Gates said. The file system will be based on technology from the next version of Microsoft's SQL Server database, codenamed Yukon, which is due out by the end of next year. WinFS, as one of its advances, is expected to let users view files indexed from various physical locations on a drive instead of displaying the contents of folders or directories.

Although Microsoft has been a little more open than before about its plan for a "big bang" release of new technology and multiple products with Longhorn, it has kept mum when it comes to shipping dates. Microsoft distanced itself from a commitment it made in May to deliver Longhorn in 2005.

"We don't know the exact time frame of it. It's clearly many years of work that we're engaging in," Gates admitted last week.

With Windows XP out since October 2001, PC companies are pushing for a quick release of Longhorn to drive sales. However, Windows Server users have only just got Windows Server 2003 in April and are unlikely to want another upgrade for at least three years. Microsoft is planning updates of Windows XP TabletPC Edition and Windows XP Media Center Edition to appease the suppliers.

Longhorn appears to be a second attempt to get .net off the ground after its initial grand launch three years ago. This time it may be for real, said Rob Helm, research director at Directions on Microsoft, an independent research firm.

"Microsoft said .net was a big bet, but .net fizzled without wiping out the company. Longhorn is when .net finally becomes a big bet," he said.

"No machine on the desktop today comes with the .net framework. That will change with Longhorn. Suddenly every machine that ships with Windows will have the .net developer technology built in." 

.Net uses standard technologies such as simple object access protocol and Extensible Markup Language to link applications over the internet and create web services.

Longhorn is just moving beyond the conception stage, the plans for its future are not set. The plans Microsoft laid out last week may well change again.

"With Longhorn, it seems to shift from one conference to the next," Helm said, referring to Microsoft's Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) in May where the company set 2005 as the year for Longhorn and said there would not be a new file system.

Jupiter Research senior analyst Joe Wilcox agreed that Microsoft's Longhorn plans are still in flux. "It is very clear still that there are a lot of question marks at Microsoft as to what is going to happen with Longhorn."

Microsoft's Ballmer sees Longhorn as "big bang" release that will "rejuvenate the innovation cycle" at Microsoft and across the IT industry. The pressure is on for Microsoft's developers to deliver and the company does its best work when under pressure, according to Directions on Microsoft's Helm.

"Historically Microsoft has done best when it is on a massive campaign. Longhorn is the next big Windows campaign. I think it is scary, but also very motivating for the people working on it to know that the company is betting on them," he said.

Microsoft promises more details about the operating system release in October at the Microsoft Professional Developers Conference to be held in Los Angeles. A preview of the software for developers will be handed out there and a beta of Longhorn is planned for next year.

Joris Evers writes for IDG News Service

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