Sneak peek: Longhorn previews search capability

Microsoft offered an early peek at Longhorn's file navigation and search capabilities last week -- and fired a shot across the bow of the emerging desktop search tool vendors.

Jim Allchin, group vice president for platforms at Microsoft, said the embedded search technology in the version of the Windows operating system is aimed squarely at products such as X1 Technologies' search technology - and others. "This goes beyond search. What we're trying to do is provide visualization," he says.

Among the innovations coming in Longhorn, which is due out by late 2006, are the ability to add keywords to files, to create "virtual folders," document "stacking" and a List Pane. Like desktop search tools, Longhorn's search function will include a preview window from which users can view and even cut and paste content without opening the file, Allchin said.

But Microsoft takes the preview concept a bit further.

The visualization concept was in evidence in Longhorn's new, translucent file manager Window. The folder metaphor of XP's Windows Explorer remains in place, but the folders are now oriented vertically and appear to be open a crack, much like a book with its pages partially exposed. But inside, instead of seeing generic icons for files such as a Word document, Longhorn presents snapshots of the first page in each document. Double click on the folder and you can see thumbnails for each file that can be magnified by enlarging the window. Using this method, users can navigate to documents based on what they look like.

Longhorn, which will be shown in preview form later this month at the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference in Seattle, also allows virtual folder views of documents that are abstracted from each file's actual location.

Virtual folders present documents that meet the results of a given XML query. Queries can be constructed based on keywords or other metadata attributes, but users don't see that: They can create their own virtual folders using a simple point-and-click interface. In Windows XP, the "My Documents" folder includes only the files physically located in that folder. In Longhorn "My Documents" can collect all documents on the computer into a single virtual folder view, regardless of location.

Microsoft has also added a concept it calls "stacking," which presents documents grouped by keyword. Instead of folders, documents appear in a stack that can be opened and navigated by double clicking on it. The List Pane feature allows a user to assemble groups of files by dragging them into the list. Lists can be saved and viewed along with other documents.

Allchin said application programming interfaces will allow software developers to take full advantage of these features, which leverage keywords and other user editable metadata.

"Tagging is a big thing now for everybody. What we've [been] doing is building a system natively in the OS for that," he said. While users can add keywords and other metadata through a properties dialog, Allchin said third-party vendors could develop tools to do that for the user. "It would be easy to add filters so that smart programs could look over the documents, look at the interesting things about it and populate [the keyword field] automatically," he said.

The new search and visualization features will be pervasive in Longhorn, Allchin said. "We've tried to be consistent through the systems. The same metaphor can work in music, in photos or even in the Start Menu when you search for programs," he said. For example, users could search for Microsoft's firewall program by typing "firewall." As each letter is typed the list of programs that match continues to shrink until only those that match the entire name remain.

WinFS, the long-delayed object-based file system originally slated to debut in Longhorn, will be in beta by the time Longhorn ships and will add more-powerful query capabilities, Allchin said. While Longhorn pulls data together in virtual views, the data is still not stored in a common repository. "It's siloed within the applications," he said. WinFS will hold data in a common place.

WinFS will also enable more-complex queries, Allchin said. "If you wanted to form a relationship between a contract, a case and an appointment, and you want a program to do those links and to do a query on that, we can't do that here. We need WinFS. But we can do a lot here," he said.

Longhorn is on track for shipment by "holiday 2006," according to Allchin, with the first beta due by this summer. The shipping schedule for WinFS is less certain, and Allchin emphasized that the file system will be available to independent software vendors for use in their products before it appears in Windows itself. WinFS would then appear in a future release of Windows.

After Longhorn, users can expect to see major releases of Windows every three to four years, with minor releases in the intervening years, Allchin said.

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Robert L. Mitchell

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