Microsoft to lift lid on Longhorn OS

Microsoft Corp. will share more details on the next version of Windows, code-named Longhorn, at its Professional Developers Conference (PDC) this month. However, the company likely will keep the new user interface, dubbed Aero, under wraps.

Aero may make a cameo appearance in Microsoft chairman and chief software architect Bill Gates’ opening keynote, but is not finished yet and likely won’t be included in the pre-beta release of Longhorn that will be handed out to PDC attendees, according to sources familiar with Microsoft’s PDC plans.

Perhaps more important to developers is that Microsoft will give PDC attendees the scoop on Avalon, the little talked about engine underlying the Longhorn user interface. Microsoft has described the technology as “a brand new client platform for building smart, connected, media rich applications in Longhorn.” Developers at the show will be told how to take advantage of Avalon in their applications.

Thanks to Avalon, Longhorn will support new styles of user interfaces and user interface elements. Developers will be able to create Windows client applications that use the type of navigation features found on the Web to browse through information, according to the PDC session calendar.

Another key topic at PDC will be WinFS (Windows Future Storage), a service that sits on top of the existing Windows file system and is meant to make it simpler and more intuitive for users to find files on computers running Longhorn. WinFS uses technology from the “Yukon” release of Microsoft’s SQL Server database, which is expected to ship late next year.

Microsoft’s PDC documentation describes WinFS as an “entirely new user experience and model around the storage of user’s data.” For example, Outlook address book data today is restricted to that e-mail client. With WinFS, that data could be made available to all applications on a PC. However, applications will have to be rewritten to take advantage of such capabilities. Microsoft plans to release a slew of application upgrades at around the time Longhorn is released.

Joe Wilcox, a Washington, D.C.-based Jupiter Research senior analyst, sees WinFS as the PDC headliner because of the impact a new storage system is likely to have on developers and businesses.

“Microsoft at PDC needs to show some significant development progress on the new file system coming for Yukon and Longhorn. Developers and businesses will need some time to prepare new applications and possibly retrofit old ones to support the new file system,” Wilcox said.

Microsoft is working hard to finish the PDC version of Longhorn. The goal is to meet “zero bug bounce,” a stage where development catches up to testing and there are no active bugs, at least for the moment. The operating system will be “about half done” when the PDC rolls around, the source said. A Longhorn beta is planned for 2004.

Gates has said that Longhorn is “a big bet” for Microsoft and that this next major release of Windows is “a bit scary” because Microsoft is making some fundamental changes to its PC software. Several thousand developers at Microsoft are working on the product.

The PDC promises to offer a feast of code names. Besides Longhorn, Aero, Avalon and Yukon, other code-named products and technologies on the agenda are Indigo and Whidbey.

Indigo is Microsoft’s new framework and programming model for building connected applications and Web services. Whidbey is the next version of Microsoft’s developer tool Visual Studio .Net. These are what developers who work for large enterprises will be coming to PDC for, according to Chris Le Tocq, principal analyst at Guernsey Research, in Los Altos, Calif.

“They are looking for more advantages in Web services as opposed to changes in the client operating system,” he said. In addition, these corporate software developers will be looking for timelines, Le Tocq said.

A buzz around the event is being built up by PDC attendees and Microsoft employees who discuss the event in their Web logs. Microsoft’s secrecy around many of the PDC topics has helped build expectations for a show packed with new technology.

PDC will also almost certainly reignite speculation about release dates of Microsoft’s new products. For Longhorn specifically, sources say that Microsoft has set Aug. 15, 2005, as the internal due date.

However, last July Gates and Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer declined to comment on a release date.

PDC takes place in Los Angeles and runs from Oct. 26 through Oct. 30.