Microsoft to trim Longhorn ambitions

Microsoft is sacrificing some features it planned for Longhorn as it works to deliver its first beta of the next Windows client next year, a company spokesman said.

Microsoft set out an ambitious vision for Longhorn last year at the Professional Developers Conference (PDC) in October. The operating system, expected in 2006, will offer major improvements over Windows XP in the way it handles graphics, files and communications, the company said at the time.

"What we told developers at PDC is the essence of Longhorn," said Greg Sullivan, lead product manager for Windows at Microsoft. "We are now determining the core work that we absolutely need to do and what the areas are where we can do some shaping around the edges so we do get the product in the hands of customers."

Microsoft is not cutting back on its vision, Sullivan said. Instead the company is clipping features and functionality, without taking away the core of the improvements it promised, so it can deliver the product in a reasonable time frame. "We're determining the work that will enable us to deliver that vision and figuring out what is not core," Sullivan said.

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.

Sullivan declined to detail which parts of the Longhorn plans won't make it to the final product. "We don't have any specific details to share about the current plan or which features are in or out," Sullivan said. More details will be available before the release of the first Longhorn beta, which is planned for early 2005, he said.

Microsoft has to trim the Longhorn feature set to be able to deliver the product, said Michael Cherry, a lead analyst at Directions on Microsoft.

"Microsoft has talked about a lot of features and functionality for Longhorn, and as it starts to talk about shipping the product it is quite natural that some features get postponed or cut," Cherry said. "In fact, it is almost a good sign that they are starting to be realistic about the amount of work they can get done in a defined period of time."

Until today, Microsoft basically said it could do almost anything with Longhorn and presented it as a panacea for all Windows headaches, Cherry said. "You could almost joke that anything you did not like about the existing Windows was going to be fixed by Longhorn. Although that was a good and glorious goal, it was not realistic," he said.

One part of Longhorn where Microsoft might cut back its ambitions is WinFS, the new unified storage system that Gates referred to at PDC as a "Holy Grail." WinFS promises to make it easier for users to find data such as documents and e-mail messages.

Microsoft may decide to limit the functionality of WinFS to users' computers and not extend it to file-sharing servers in a corporate network, according to sources familiar with Microsoft's development plans.

WinFS is one of three core components of Longhorn. The other two are Avalon and Indigo, code names for a presentation subsystem and communication technologies, respectively. The components sit on top of a layer of "fundamentals" that includes security and technology to make sure applications and drivers don't conflict.

All those components and the fundamentals will be in Longhorn when it ships, Sullivan said Friday. However, the operating system may not support as broad a range of scenarios as Microsoft once envisioned, he said.

Software developers have already had a first look at Longhorn. Microsoft released a special preview version of the software at PDC. An updated developer preview will be distributed at the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) in Seattle next month, Sullivan said. Also at WinHEC, Microsoft will also update attendees on the Longhorn road map, Sullivan said.

Although last year's PDC attracted thousands of developers eager to hear about Longhorn, not all developers want to deal with details of an operating system that is two years out.

"We have real-world applications that must be written using today's technology. As developers who get paid to provide solutions for our companies and our clients, Longhorn is essentially a lot of background noise," said Dave Burke, a senior software developer at LLI Technologies, an engineering and construction company in Pittsburgh.

"Our policy at LLI is to jump in with both feet when a Microsoft product hits beta two. This approach has allowed us to remain relatively cutting edge while enabling us to remain focused on productivity. We've done that with .Net and with Windows Server 2003, and we'll do it with Longhorn," Burke said.

Longhorn and its beta release have slipped since they were first discussed. Microsoft last year set 2005 as the release year for Longhorn and planned a beta for 2004, but the company has since backed away from both those commitments.

Last month Gates said speculation that Longhorn will come out in 2006 is "probably valid speculation." Earlier this month Microsoft said the first Longhorn beta is likely to slip to early 2005.

Microsoft has a spotty record in meeting release targets. Last month the company delayed the release of SQL Server 2005 and Visual Studio 2005, major upgrades to its database and developer tools, respectively, to the first half of 2005. Both had been due in the second half of 2004. Both products are tied to the new technologies coming in Longhorn.

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