Microsoft's WinFS: Dead again (sigh)

A Windows whose file system is a powerful, object-oriented database that can wrangle content of all kinds with aplomb? It's one of the best ideas that Microsoft ever came up with--and maybe the most vaporous. And it died again this week when a posting at a Microsoft blog said that WinFS won't appear in a beta 2 version...or, actually, at all as the Windows Vista add-on it was most recently going to be. (Instead, aspects of its technologies will get rolled into other Microsoft products like SQL Server and ADO.NET, says the blog.)

So Microsoft's object-oriented file system has died--again. Back when Windows Vista was known as Longhorn, WinFS was going to be one of its key features, but it got thrown overboard along the way. Just like it got thrown overboard years ago when it was known as OFS and was supposed to be a feature in the Windows NT upgrade that was code-named Cairo. (Here's a 1994 Byte article that mentions that version, via ZDNet.)

In any of its variants, Microsoft's object-oriented approach to file systems was a big, ambitious idea that the company hyped relentlessly until it figured out, again and again, that it couldn't deliver. And though it was somewhat vague, there was obviously huge potential in the idea of a platform that had a deep understanding of all the types of data we work with, and made it all effortlessly searchable.

Here's Bill Gates talking up WinFS in a 2003 speech, before developers who were clearly salivating to get their hands on it:

"WinFS--this is unified storage. Some of you here have heard me talk about unified storage for more than a decade. The idea of taking the XML flexibility, database technology, getting it into the file system: that's been a Holy Grail for me for quite some time. And here it is. Thank goodness we have got the powerful systems to be able to do this thing. Thank goodness we have the evolution around XML and user interface capabilities, so that this can all come together."

(Note that Gates spoke of WinFS in the present tense, and said it was here already; he went on to introduce a demo of the technology at work in Longhorn, one which the speech transcript says was repeatedly interrupted by applause. One wonders how Microsoft was able to mount such an impressive demo if the company later decided that it couldn't get WinFS to work after all. And how Gates feels about the fact that his holy grail feels a lot further away than his retirement is.)

WinFS could have made Windows Vista into a breakthrough. But without WinFS, Vista--judging from beta 2, at least--will have extremely ordinary search and media-management features, ones which don't do a whole lot that can't be accomplished for free right now, courtesy of third-party downloads. And Apple's OS X 10.4, while it certainly doesn't do all the things that WinFS aimed to accomplish from a file system standpoint, comes closer than Vista will.

In a sense, though, WinFS was obsolete before it ever appeared...er, didn't appear. The whole idea of next-generation file systems being about a particular operating system from a particular company sounds a little quaint--the truly life-changing breakthroughs will happen when the whole darn Internet is an object-oriented file system, and it doesn't much matter where your data lives or what type of device you want to use it on.

WinFS wouldn't have provided that. But it would have been fun to be able to judge it for ourselves in the form that Microsoft has been touting for so long.

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Harry McCracken

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