As Microsoft approaches a major milestone in the development of Longhorn, company executives are talking more about the features of the Windows XP successor -- which they claim will be easier to use, more secure and less costly to manage than earlier versions of Windows. Microsoft originally unveiled the Longhorn operating system in late 2003 but then reigned in its ambitions last year, aiming to release it late next year.
To meet that shipment date, Microsoft clipped some key features, most notably the WinFS unified storage system that chairman and chief software architect, Bill Gates, had called the Holy Grail.
Now, after several months of relative silence on the Longhorn front, Microsoft executives have once again started to talk up the operating system's features.
Group vice-president in charge of Windows, Jim Allchin, said Microsoft wanted to deliver an operating system that is user friendly, secure, easy to install and manageable. And despite the features cut from Longhorn last year, he said it will be worth the upgrade.
Security and safety
Users would not have to worry if they would be successful when plugging a projector into a Longhorn-based laptop for a presentation, Allchin said. Longhorn-based computers would instantly connect to a home network and recognise peripherals.
When it came to security and safety, Microsoft would provide features such as parental controls for Web surfing, Allchin said. And when browsing the Web, Internet Explorer would run in a protected space so it couldn't impact the rest of the system, while those guards could be dropped when connected to a corporate intranet, he said.
Longhorn will also have a feature designed to protect data on a PC.
"We will have something called secure start-up, where if you lose your laptop it won't make a difference because somebody can't load another system on there to analyse your hard disk," Allchin said.
For IT professionals, Longhorn will end the nightmare of creating and updating system software images, according to Allchin. Today, Windows typically requires separate images for each language and for each type of PC, and these images have to be rebuilt from scratch when a computer is updated with a security patch.
"We have brand new technology for imaging that will dramatically reduce the number of images required," Allchin said.
This should help make Windows more manageable and reduce operational costs for businesses, he said.
Despite the absence of WinFS, which was meant to make it easier to find information stored on a PC, Longhorn will offer users new ways to find documents. In a demonstration, a Microsoft employee showed how the Windows Explorer in Longhorn will display virtual folders with, for example, Word documents located anywhere on the hard disk.
Furthermore, Microsoft has added a search bar in the upper right-hand corner of Windows Explorer to help users find files. Also, images are shown as thumbnails instead of standard icons in Windows Explorer. The file manager will also display thumbnail-sized versions of Word documents and Excel spreadsheets.
Microsoft saw Longhorn as the basis of Windows releases for the next decade, Allchin said. As such, the operating system would be ready for the future with support for technologies such as Internet Protocol version 6.
IPv6 is a newer version of IP, which accommodates more IP addresses.
At Microsoft's Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) in Seattle, Microsoft handed out a pre-beta version of Longhorn. This version is meant to let hardware makers start building drivers that will work with the operating system. The release is a major milestone in the development cycle of Longhorn.
"It won't be complete in any way," Allchin said. "It is not designed to be given out broadly. It is designed because the driver models are solid and they are ready to be written to."
A first beta of Longhorn was due out by July, Allchin said. This beta release would be for IT managers to test features such as imaging and give Microsoft feedback. No date had been set for a second beta.
Developers will get another version of Longhorn in September at the Professional Developers Conference (PDC) in Los Angeles.
This version will let them start developing applications for the operating system, according to Allchin.
The version of Longhorn handed out at the 2003 PDC, where Microsoft first showed Longhorn, should be discarded, he said.
The final version of Longhorn is scheduled to be broadly available in December 2006. At that time, WinFS, the unified storage system that was clipped from Longhorn last August, would be in beta testing, Allchin said.
There was no target date for a final version of WinFS, he said.
In addition to Longhorn, Microsoft launched the x64 versions of Windows Server and Windows XP at the WinHEC conference. The 64-bit operating systems will offer users improved performance and greater security, according to Microsoft.
With Windows Server 2003 x64 Editions and Windows XP Professional x64 Edition, Microsoft will provide users with the option of running both 32-bit and 64-bit applications on the same system. The software runs on PCs equipped with processors with 64-bit extensions from AMD and Intel.
These 64-bit systems offer users greater computing power as systems can process more data per clock cycle and can use larger amounts of memory.
Allchin has urged hardware makers to build drivers for the 64-bit releases of Windows, lest the adoption of 64-bit computing be held back by hardware incompatibilities.
At last year's WinHEC event, Microsoft also called out to hardware makers to build 64-bit drivers.
Microsoft expects significant adoption of 64-bit systems. By the end of 2005, all server processors and about half the processors sold for client PCs will support 64-bit computing.
AMD's Athlon64 and Opteron processors, as well as Intel's Xeon processors, currently support 64-bit extensions. The availability of the operating systems comes long after the processors shipped.