Longhorn details emerge

The successor to Windows XP isn't due until late next year, but Microsoft this week treated Windows hardware developers here to tantalizing glimpses of a slick-looking OS with support for all types of connectivity and multimedia, new security capabilities, and a new document format.

This next-generation Windows, code-named Longhorn, was the subject of numerous presentations at the 2005 Windows Hardware Engineering Conference, or WinHEC. Beta testing for Longhorn is due to begin this summer.

Some details had already emerged at previous Microsoft conferences. The OS's new graphics engine, code-named Avalon, uses the power of today's graphics chips to produce stunning effects, such as so-called aero glass transparency, which allows content from one window to show through parts of the window on top of it. Animated icons and shading effects available in Longhorn dramatically enhance traditional Windows elements, too.

But Longhorn's powerful graphics capabilities aren't just about aesthetics. Application elements that look tiny on high-resolution displays--toolbar buttons or menu text, for example--can be enlarged to two or three times their original size forlegibility.

Metro: New Document Format

Longhorn will also incorporate a new document format called Metro--which uses XML (eXtensible Markup Language) and other technologies (including parts of Avalon)--that aims to standardize advanced graphics in documents across multiple platforms and applications (similar to the way documents in Adobe's PDF format have become ubiquitous).

Besides producing the Metro specification, Microsoft has developed a viewer for managing, viewing, and printing Metro files; a print-to-file applet for creating Metro documents from any Windows application; APIs (application programming interfaces) that will allow developers to incorporate Metro into their software, hardware, and even Web sites; software to optimize printing of Metro documents; and a Metro printer driver.

Microsoft says that it will offer Metro technology royalty-free to encourage industry-wide support--particularly from printer vendors, who, by incorporating Metro technology into their products, can achieve faster printing speeds (because the PC won't have to do all the work) and truer reproduction of documents.

Well Connected, Media Friendly

Several WinHEC sessions addressed Longhorn's improved connectivity features. For example, the OS will support cell phones in the same way that Windows now supports digital cameras, with technology for everything from transferring and synchronizing data (such as music files and contact information) to displaying the phone's content and capabilities in a Windows Explorer-like view.

In addition, Longhorn will handle IP-addressable devices on a local-area network just as Windows XP now manages hardware connected via USB or PCI. "We're now treating IP as just another bus," said Jawad Khaki, corporate vice president for Windows networking and device technologies. One result of this approach: Users will no longer need to install a printer; instead, it will install itself, much the way a plug-and-play USB flash drive now does.

Longhorn will also further the trend towards multimedia-friendly PCs, with support for high-definition video and something called Direct Media Mode that will allow users to play music and/or video on a Longhorn notebook or desktop without actually booting up Windows.

Several demos at WinHEC showed how Longhorn's auxiliary display support will enable users to access data--from calendar and contact info to music and video--without booting into Windows or (in the case of a notebook) even opening the lid. (The auxiliary display on a notebook, as shown at WinHEC, was an LCD the size of a large matchbook embedded on the outside of the lid.)

Security in Longhorn

Addressing longstanding and increasingly critical concerns about the security of Windows, Longhorn will feature what Microsoft calls Secure Startup--technology intended to determine whether a system has been tampered with while offline. At bootup, Secure Startup will check for a security chip known as TPM (Trusted Platform Module) that will store cryptographic keys, passwords, and digital certificates, typically on the motherboard. Putting security measures in hardware makes the system far more resistant to tampering than does using a software-based security scheme.

Microsoft announced some time ago that the WinFS storage system first unveiled at the Professional Developers Conference in October 2003 won't ship with Longhorn. Nevertheless, some benefits of WinFS, which will add relational database characteristics to the traditional Windows file system, were showcased in WinHEC demos.

For example, saving a file in Longhorn brings up fields for user-defined file metadata such as the author, the title of a document, the date of creation, the document's category, and keywords; if completed, these metadata fields can later be used to speed up and improve searches. By displaying the fields instead of hiding them in a Properties dialog box as Windows currently does, Longhorn presumably will encourage users to supply the metadata.

APIs that will allow third-party applications to take advantage of the metadata won't be supported until WinFS is fully implemented. In the meantime, Longhorn users will still benefit from the faster search capabilities.

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