Putting Microsoft brand on a new breed: Longhorn
Seattle Times technology reporter
The next time you see Microsoft software developers showing off their latest invention, the question to ask is whether their work will be in Longhorn.
It's not an inside joke among the coding cowboys. Longhorn is the code name for a radically new version of Windows designed to be a foundation of Microsoft's business in the coming decade. More than 2,000 of the company's engineers are rushing to finish the project by late 2004.
"It's a phenomenal step forward and very ambitious," Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates said of Longhorn. It's "my big-time focus now."
The new operating system is expected to be a key weapon in Microsoft's battle against low-cost software based on freely shared code. Although various versions of Windows run more than 90 percent of the world's computers, software developers are increasingly drawn to open-source software such as the Linux operating system.
With Longhorn, Microsoft hopes to assert technical superiority and create opportunities for developers to build and sell programs that take advantage of its new technologies.
"There is a lot more in Longhorn that should be exciting to software developers," said Chief Executive Steve Ballmer, who said the current Windows XP was mostly a refinement of the earlier Windows 2000 system.
Longhorn — the name refers to a bar in Whistler, B.C. — is supposed to solve many of the frustrations with today's computers, including security vulnerabilities and the difficulty finding things stored inside ever-larger hard drives.
Longhorn also may change the look and feel of computers by taking advantage of video and 3-D capabilities of new computer chips and graphics hardware.
Early peeks have revealed colorful, transparent screen icons and moving features such as a 3-D, animated music player.
Computers built around Longhorn also may look different. Microsoft is trying to play a bigger role in the design of computers by helping manufacturers build machines that make the most of its software.
But a lot is riding on Longhorn for nontechnical reasons as well. It's the first version of Microsoft's franchise product since the 28-year-old company emerged from a fog of legal challenges with a new structure, new priorities and a clearer vision of its mission and strategy.
Longhorn will also be the first new consumer operating system built under Gates' mandate to place top priority on improving the security, reliability and privacy protection in Microsoft products.
Jim Allchin, the group vice president in charge of the Windows division, said Longhorn and other upcoming releases reflect the higher priority Microsoft is placing on listening to customers' needs, and the way it has learned to push more of its advanced research into products.
"We want to make it more relevant to people both at home and at work," he said. "We have a bunch of catch phrases that we use internally — as convenient as paper, as entertaining as a TV, as connected as a phone — that sort of thing. We think we can make it much more submersive in someone's life."
Investors are hoping the software will be the catalyst for Microsoft's next big growth spurt and take advantage of pent-up demand to replace the nearly 600 million personal computers in use around the world.
A matter of timing
Innovations aside, Longhorn may benefit from good timing. It's scheduled to go on sale — along with a new generation of PCs designed to take advantage of its power — around the time Gates expects the world to emerge from its economic slump. A recent report by Merrill Lynch said corporate technology spending remains low, and the technology industry won't turn around until 2004 or perhaps 2005 — just when Longhorn will arrive.
Microsoft has sold more than 90 million copies of Windows XP since it was launched in October 2001, but that hasn't been enough to reinvigorate the PC industry.
One problem is that most Americans who want a PC already have one — they're in at least 65 percent of homes — and most people are satisfied with the ones they have, according to surveys by Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass.
Another challenge is the rise of operating systems based on Linux, but several analysts said that's mostly growing in corporate computing centers and is unlikely to topple Microsoft's dominance in desktop PCs.
With Longhorn, Microsoft may once again find the biggest competition is its own software. Many consumers and companies will have recently bought Windows XP when Longhorn goes on sale.
"When you have something that's pretty decent, like Windows 2000 and Windows XP, it gets pretty hard to come out with the next thing that will be compelling, to get people to upgrade," said Mike Silver, an industry analyst with the Gartner consulting group in Stamford, Conn.
Still, there is little on Microsoft's horizon other than Longhorn with the potential to really increase the company's profits, said Victor Raisys, a stock analyst at SoundView Technology Group in San Francisco.
"My question is, what happens between now and Longhorn?" he said.
Push is on
Meanwhile, Microsoft is pushing to get Longhorn done on time. It's deciding how many features it can include and how much it can upgrade Windows while remaining on schedule.
Heading the development team is Chris Jones, a 33-year-old vice president who also led development of Windows XP. He's a Stanford graduate with boyish looks that belie a Gates-like intensity and purposefulness.
"Longhorn will be the first release we've done since Windows 95 for the client where we're able to do basically three things — (create) end-user excitement, developer excitement and new excitement for the hardware vendors," Jones said.
He organizes Microsoft's investments in Longhorn into two "buckets." In the first are basic improvements to its performance, reliability, security and privacy protections. Those are being developed in conjunction with an online service that will provide Longhorn users with updates and improvements as they are developed.
In the second bucket are new ways to use a PC. Those include new applications Microsoft is developing and efforts to help other companies build new programs for Longhorn-powered computers.
Executives say Longhorn will provide more opportunities for developers to write and sell new programs than Windows XP did. But those developers will have to learn how to write programs that run with the new internal workings of Longhorn.
The biggest change is to the file system that stores documents in the computer. Longhorn's system will be based on a new database the company is developing that is designed to make it easier to find, sort and retrieve each document.
Jones explains how this works by talking about how searches for digital photos would be handled: "You don't want to search by file name, because they're all called dsc035.jpg. You want to search, 'show me the pictures I took last month,' 'show me the pictures of me and my wife,' 'show me the pictures of my children,' 'show me the pictures from Christmases.'
"To do that requires a change both in our user interface and also a change in our model for how information is stored on the computer."
Hunting for files
This storage technology is challenging, and its refinement will continue after Longhorn is completed, but Gates insisted that it be part of the new operating system. One reason is that he has always dreamed of making it easier to find files on computers. His mandate was that the technology make it easier to find data on different machines. That would make it easier to learn to use a PC because users would have to learn only one way to search for things.
"This is one where very much I'm the most committed to making sure we get it exactly right," he said.
The search tool sounds similar to the popular Google search engine, but turned inward into the computer rather than out onto the World Wide Web.
But Allchin bristled at the comparison. "Google's a very nice system, but compared to my vision, it's pathetic," he said.
Allchin said his goal is to have computers learn about the user, helping set the context for searches.
"Whether it's Google or any of the other search engines, the amount of random stuff you get back is pretty overwhelming," he said. "But if you knew a little bit about me — for example, I love music — so when I'm searching for 'strings,' you know they should know this guy's probably thinking about guitars."
The workings of file systems may be arcane to the average user, but Microsoft plans to use the technology as a selling point. It would emphasize how the system can make businesses more productive by making it easier for workers to find and share documents.
For consumers, the pitch is likely to focus on convenience and simplicity.
Gartner's Silver said the improvements are critical because of the rapidly increasing amount of e-mail and other data that users are accumulating. Search engines make it easy to find things on the Web in seconds, but that's not the case with locating files on a hard drive.
But SoundView's Raisys said Microsoft needs more than a new file system "to really drive this thing."
Another selling point for Longhorn will be its security and privacy enhancements, including a controversial security system that makes it possible to restrict copying of digital files. The system may appeal to music publishers and companies that handle sensitive documents, but it could reduce the control users have over data in their machines.
One way Microsoft is introducing this new era of digital-document controls is with the concept of "digital originals," referring to original, authentic and legal copies of documents.
Jones said users want assurance that they can trust their computers to store and protect their digital originals.
"When you get into that new 'digital-original' kind of world, (you) need to go beyond security to this whole notion of trustworthiness," he said. "Not only am I trusting this computer with my pictures and my documents, but I'm actually trusting it with intimate details of my life."
Brier Dudley: 206-515-5687 or email@example.com