Microsoft sounds its security horn

Security and reliability vulnerabilities have frequently plagued Microsoft Corp.’s Windows platform, but a future version promises to wipe the security slate clean and bring forth an operating system that is big on dependability.

Code-named Longhorn, the next release is due in the second half of 2004. According to some analysts, Longhorn is far from just an upgrade. The platform is expected to break the mold of how the world computes.

“This is probably the biggest step [Microsoft] has taken in technology,” said Rob Enderle, research fellow with Giga Information Group in Santa Clara, Calif. “This is a rearchitecting of a platform to address critical problems with other features thrown on top.”

According to Enderle, Longhorn will be the first software platform that is tied directly to hardware components. The reason for that move has much to do with the reliability and security issues that Microsoft has been prone to with past releases.

“Nothing is unbreakable, but it will be substantially more reliable than Windows XP, and [Longhorn’s] self-healing capabilities are supposed to be much more advanced than any existing OS,” he said. “In other words, it will have the ability to diagnose…problems and self-correct.”

On the security side, Microsoft has been developing its Palladium technology, which requires hardware components to physically prevent users from removing the hard drive and re-installing it in another system. While Enderle warned that this method would not make systems invulnerable to attacks, he said it is extremely more difficult and would require a substantial amount of work to break into the system. Enderle expects Longhorn to incorporate biometric support and increased Smart Card support, though he added it is not clear where at present.

In terms of user experience, Longhorn is expected to display changes to both the browser and GUI, including 3-D browsing features, which give the user an equivalent of three screen views in one. The GUI is expected to contain more animated features and may bear some similarities to the Apple OSX offering, Enderle said.

“Longhorn has things built into it that should make it the most reliable security platform Microsoft has every built,” he said. “It is similar to what was done when OS2 was built and NT. It is not necessarily hype. The critical problems the OS has right now have to do with security and reliability and that is why the core will be altered significantly to address those problems.”

However, not everyone shares Enderle’s view of Longhorn. Michael Cherry, former Microsoft employee and lead analyst, operating systems with Directions on Microsoft, an independent analysis and consulting firm in Kirkland, Wash., said he has reservations on just what will be included in the eventual Longhorn release. He explained that over the course of the year, Microsoft execs have presented contradicting stories in terms of features, business benefit and just how far along the system is in its development.

“Right now, [Microsoft] is working on Windows .Net server, which is the release Bill Gates promised would be out in April,” Cherry said. “The number one priority in the Windows division is getting that product shipped. I’m just a little nervous about just how much work is actually being done on Longhorn at this point. I don’t believe even Microsoft has its story together.”

In what he has learned about Longhorn so far, Cherry said that what is lacking from the picture is the actual benefit of the platform.

“Here is what nobody has proven to me: how much more efficient am I going to be in the office because the user interface has changed? What I have not seen in the feature list is…what is going to make me more productive as a user,” he said.

Originally reported to have a corresponding server release code-named Blackcomb, Microsoft recently confirmed that the server would not be released when Longhorn makes its debut, thanks to the delay of the .Net server still yet to be released.

But while speculation runs amok, the underlying questions remains: what does Longhorn mean to the XP user today? Actually, not much, at least for one XP user. According to Paul Gifford, manager of internal services with EDS Canada in Calgary, although Longhorn doesn’t ring a bell, he has taken the position that innovation is the nature of the business.

“One of the problems is that it does cost a lot to do upgrades when you have a company of 150,000 people worldwide,” Gifford said. “But if (Longhorn) is clearly the quantum leap that Microsoft says it is, then I would hope our company would recognize the value and go there quickly. If they could build an OS with less security issues, that would definitely save our company a lot of money. You are just hopeful that the cost of upgrading won’t be traumatic.”

Microsoft declined to comment on the forthcoming OS, stating that it is too early in the game stage to provide details on its development.