Longhorn beta likely to slip into 2005

A first beta release of the next version of Windows likely will be delayed until next year because Microsoft Corp. is concentrating first on a security-focused update to Windows XP, the Redmond, Wash.-based company said Thursday.

Microsoft had said it would deliver a beta version of Longhorn, the code name for the next Windows release, in mid-2004. However, the test version is now expected in early 2005 because many developers working on Longhorn have been reassigned to work on Service Pack 2 (SP2) for Windows XP, a Microsoft spokesman said.

“Based on what has happened over the past year in the area of security, we took a look at what was going on with Windows…and pulled resources from Longhorn development in order to deliver Windows XP Service Pack 2. That slightly impacted the beta schedule for Longhorn,” said Greg Sullivan, lead product manager for Windows at Microsoft.

Windows XP SP2, scheduled for release in the first half of this year, is more than the usual roll-up of bug fixes and updates. Microsoft is using the update to make significant changes to Windows that are designed to improve security in four main areas: network protection, memory protection, e-mail and Web browsing.

Longhorn is a major new Windows release, a “big bet” for Microsoft, chairman and chief software architect Bill Gates said last year. Gates has described Longhorn as a “big breakthrough release” and the most significant release of Windows since Windows 95.

Software developers have already had a first look at Longhorn. Microsoft released a special preview version of the software at its Professional Developers Conference (PDC) in October last year. An updated developer preview will be distributed at the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) in Seattle next month, Sullivan said.

Although pulling developers off Longhorn to work on Windows XP SP2 affected the Longhorn beta release, the long-term effects are negligible, he said.

“We’re coming down the home stretch in delivering SP2 and some of those (reassigned) resources have already begun to go back to focus on Longhorn. I don’t think the long-term impact is too significant,” Sullivan said.

Microsoft in May last year set 2005 as the release year for Longhorn, but has since backed away from that commitment. Gates earlier this week said Longhorn is “not a date driven release.” However, he also said that speculation that the operating system will come out in 2006 is “probably valid speculation.”

Microsoft’s record in meeting release targets isn’t good. Last month the company pushed back the release date for major upgrades to its database and developer tools to the first half of 2005, a delay of as much as six months. Yukon, the code name for Microsoft’s SQL Server 2005 database, and Whidbey, the code name for Visual Studio 2005, both had been due in the second half of 2004.

Given the recent schedule slips, even 2006 is a tough target to hit for Longhorn, said Jupiter Research senior analyst Joe Wilcox. “I don’t see how serious Longhorn work can start until Microsoft releases Yukon and Whidbey. So, assuming the first Longhorn beta is ready around the time those products ship, 2006 is tough,” he said.

As Microsoft continues work on Longhorn it may drop some features to make sure development is not held back. “There may be some specific features that are scaled back, but the vision that we described last fall is still accurate and Longhorn will be a breakthrough release,” Sullivan said.

Julia Lerman, an independent software developer in Fairfax, Vt., said she does not expect the beta delay to affect her work. “In this early stage, the people who should be fiddling with Longhorn probably already have access to it and will continue to see pre-beta bits. I currently have so many things to learn and experiment with that Longhorn is a constant temptation that I have to set aside,” she said.

Longhorn promises to give users a secure operating system with a new way to store files, revamped graphics and tight links to the Web. The operating system is built up of three components that sit on top of a layer of “fundamentals” that includes security and technology to make sure applications and drivers don’t conflict.

On top of those fundamentals sit Avalon, WinFS and Indigo, code-names for a presentation subsystem, unified storage system and communication technologies, respectively. Microsoft provided many details of Longhorn at PDC last year. “The vision that we described at the PDC will be what we deliver,” Sullivan said.

Before Microsoft delivers Longhorn, the company is expected to make another marketing push for Windows XP. A plan is being drafted under the project name Windows XP Reloaded.

“(Windows XP Reloaded) should not be thought of as an interim release of Windows, but instead as an effort to deliver capability that we have already talked about,” Sullivan said. That would include SP2 and updates to Windows Media Player, he said.

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