You may suspect that the unceasing evolution of the Windows operating system has more to do with Microsoft making sure the bucks don't dry up than with giving users what they want, but it's the only way to get where we really want to be, says Colin Beveridge
"Longhorn" is an interesting choice of name for Microsoft’s forthcoming “release of the decade” - its new Windows operating system expected in 2007.
For me the word conjures up childhood television memories of cowboys driving teeming herds of cattle over hostile territory towards inevitable slaughter. Week after week in the 1950s and 60s we watched the western heroes deliver their steers safely to their destiny, regardless of the obstacles put in their way by man and nature.
So perhaps the name was simply chosen to reflect the hardiness, resilience and persistence of longhorn cattle - an apposite analogy for a world-class operating system.
This seems quite plausible. After all, what self-respecting company would want to give a flagship development project a lightweight name?
Everybody knows the importance of a project name as an important flag to rally the troops and allies to the cause, and it is difficult to be original, given the burgeoning list of names already used up by an industry obsessed with snappy project titles.
So Longhorn is as good a name as any for Windows 2007, especially as it could end up as Windows 2008, or even 2009 by the time it is finally released.
But some may prefer to believe that the Longhorn label reveals, albeit subliminally, the software giant’s proprietary attitude to herding millions of cowed computer users on a never-ending stampede towards perpetual financial servitude.
That, though, is a short-sighted if widely held view. As an IT director I often hear people who challenge the need for a new desktop operating system. Their concerns generally fall into two broad categories, as follows.
First, why do we need yet another new PC operating system? Why can’t we just call it quits with further development and stick with XP, or whatever flavour of Linux suits our needs now?
Second, why should we let suppliers such as Microsoft drive us ever onwards, beyond our feature comfort zone in many cases? Why do we need a feature-intensive thick-client operating system in the brave new browser-driven world of web services?
My answers to these questions are well-rehearsed but not, I trust, glib.
I am certain we could all exist quite comfortably for many years to come without any further development of the current generation of PC hardware and software. We already have amazing computing power on our desktops and laptops, power undreamed of when the PC revolution began in the 1970s.
But you can be certain that we would not have seen desktop hardware technology advance if we had not been driven by the growing complexity and capability of the operating system. And to be honest, for the last 20 years that has been entirely down to the steady progress of Windows. A bitter pill for some to swallow perhaps, but true even so.
Mankind needs progress and strives for improvement. It's why we're not driving around in cars with stone wheels or in horse-drawn chariots. Technology moves on, relentlessly, until we can't develop it further. So we do need to keep the operating systems moving on if we want to reap the broader benefits of ever faster, increasingly cheaper and pervasive personal technology. If the software stagnates, so will our overall progress.
And until our infrastructure develops even further, we will continue to need feature-intensive, thick-client operating systems for those people who use their computers for all the tasks that are not yet embedded into fully automated business process control systems. We're still a long way from a fully thin-client vision where all our computing is web-served and we must wait and see whether Longhorn complicates or simplifies the move to such a world.
In the meantime, a few mavericks will doubtless attempt to break away from the herd. Good luck to them: genuine competition is healthy. I just hope that Longhorn delivers the promise we need to progress and that the much maligned Office Assistant paperclip is not replaced with a lasso…
Colin Beveridge is an independent consultant and leading commentator on technology management issues. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org