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Microsoft scales back plans for Longhorn

Microsoft scales back plans for Longhorn

Microsoft Corp. Friday made a dramatic retreat from its lofty goals for Longhorn, saying its highly touted storage subsystem would not ship with the client operating system.

Instead, Microsoft said WinFS storage and search technology would be in beta when the Longhorn client operating system ships in 2006. This is the first time Microsoft has confirmed a ship date for the client operating system. The server version remains slated for 2007.

In addition, Microsoft said WinFX would be back-ported to Windows XP and Windows Server 2003 and made available when Longhorn ships. WinFX replaces the Win32 programming model and includes two foundation technologies slated for Longhorn - a presentation subsystem called Avalon and Web-service middleware called Indigo. In essence, this announcement dilutes the importance of those two technologies to the Longhorn platform.

"I question what is left of Longhorn. I just don't know until we have more details," said Peter Pawlak, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft, an independent research firm. "What will be the difference (in Longhorn) from a Windows XP box with WinFX?" says Pawlak.

The move to expand the platforms that support Avalon and Indigo means developers will have a lot of the newfangled Longhorn infrastructure to write applications against without having to worry about users adopting Longhorn to take advantage of the applications.

The changes make Longhorn more of an evolution from Windows XP rather than the revolution in desktop computing that Microsoft has been touting, Microsoft officials admitted.

"The path to get to our very ambitious vision for Windows is different and is more evolutionary in appearance rather than one big leap like we have described in the past (with Longhorn)," says Greg Sullivan, lead product manager for the Windows client group at Microsoft.

But Sullivan did say Longhorn would be distinct from Windows XP and Windows Server 2003. "There will be differentiation features available in Longhorn, from the fundamentals of the core OS kernel, to performance, reliability and security and a host of management tools and an error-reporting infrastructure - all the things that IT is interested in." He said Longhorn would ship in the second half of 2006 and would be "broadly available" by the end of that year.

He added that "Longhorn will bring tremendous strides to achieving the Windows platform vision, and subsequent to that we will get out WinFS and we will get to the vision that we outlined at the PDC."

At its Professional Developers Conference in November, where Microsoft distributed a pre-alpha version of Longhorn, Microsoft's chief software architect Bill Gates said Longhorn would provide opportunities for developers that would be stronger over the next decade than at any time in history.

Now that seems only like tough talk as Longhorn's key constructs will clearly develop on a more gradual schedule.

That makes sense, according to some experts. Microsoft has always relied on its development community to generate excitement around a new technology, which is how it began to roll out .Net.

"If they tie (Avalon and Indigo) to Longhorn it would take years for them to get developers on it," says Pawlak of Directions of Microsoft. "By expanding WinFX, they get the same thing they've had with .Net - they kick-start development. That's pretty interesting. I never got WinFX in isolation (on the Longhorn platform)."

Microsoft's Sullivan admitted that developers had hounded Microsoft to make Avalon and Indigo available to more platforms, something that will not happen with WinFS.

"We do not plan to make WinFS available on down-level platforms," he confirmed.

The delay of WinFS is what really takes the shine off Longhorn. Gates said at the PDC in November that WinFS was the realization of a 10-year dream for him around search technology and termed it his "Holy Grail."

WinFS, the storage subsystem planned for Longhorn, is designed to break data away from individual applications and interfaces so it can be stored and shared universally at the platform level. It also would allow data searches that stretch across the desktop PC, the network and Web services.

Having WinFS in the Longhorn client really didn't make sense if there was no server-side support to back it up, experts said.

Microsoft's Sullivan said Longhorn would include local desktop searching as a hint of the power in the relational database capabilities of WinFS.

The first beta of Longhorn is expected in ship next year.

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