The Road to Windows "Longhorn"


What we know about the next version of Windows

UPDATE: This showcase is now out of date. Please refer to my "Longhorn" Alpha Preview for newer information about the next Windows version.

If you're a Net junkie like me, you've probably seen screenshots that reportedly expose upcoming user interfaces for the next two versions of Windows (code-named "Longhorn" and "Blackcomb"). You might have heard of internal alpha builds of either OS, and maybe, just maybe, you've seen the infamous Blackcomb movie that's making the rounds as well. I've spent the past few months investigating all of these things, and after speaking with several Microsofties and uncovering the truth behind the wild stuff that's available on the Internet, I thought I'd provide a little heads-up on what's really going on with the next version of Windows.

Chances are, everything you know is wrong. But I do know this: As of this date--early 2002--every single screenshot you've seen that purports to be Longhorn or Blackcomb is either fake or actually shows something other than those OSes. Every single one. And there are no builds of Blackcomb floating around, internal or otherwise.

Microsoft is indeed working on future versions of Windows and accompanying technologies such as MSN 8, Digital Media 9 Series ("Corona"), Windows Powered Smart Displays ("Mira"), and Windows XP Media Center Edition ("Freestyle," see my related showcases about and XP Media Center and Windows Powered Smart Displays). These technologies will all ship separately, while other technologies (such as the next version of Windows Movie Maker and DVD burning capabilities) won't see the light of day until Longhorn ships in late 2004. There are so many groups working on Windows-related technologies these days, in fact, that it's hard to keep up.

So let's start with an obvious target: That intriguing "Blackcomb" video and the screenshot fakes that appeared as a result.

The "Blackcomb" Video (July 2001)
The Blackcomb rumors started with Microsoft's annual Financial Analysts Meeting, which was held in late July 2001. During the meeting, many Microsoft executives, including Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer, gave presentation-heavy speeches, usually punctuated by product demonstrations given by senior Microsoft product managers. During MSN chief Yusuf Mehdi's talk, Steven Guggenheimer demonstrated how a future MSN "Service Innovation" could integrate with the Windows shell. The version of Windows that was used included a post-XP prototype user interface that included a slightly modified Welcome screen and a Start Panel that occupies the rightmost third of the screen. Windows enthusiast sites continue to circulate movies of the demo to this day, claiming that it shows Blackcomb (this, despite the fact that Longhorn had been revealed as the next Windows version just days earlier).

But it's not Blackcomb, of course. Instead, it's just a prototype version of MSN running on a prototype Windows build, and Guggenheimer's demo was used solely to show how future Windows versions will supply more hooks into the UI so that other products can integrate themselves where appropriate. MSN clearly has plans to do this, though MSN 8--the MSN version due in late 2002--will just take some baby steps that work on today's Windows.

Let's check out Guggenheimer's talk, punctuated by shots showing how the screen looked at the time. This discussion is taken directly from the official transcript of the speech.

GUGGENHEIMER: We'll take a little walk into the future, not for too long. One of the things that I think the Windows guys have done a tremendous job with in the current release with XP is sort of creating hooks for services, enabling services to blend nicely with the PC. If you think about it, though, we still have a ways to go. If you look at, for example, the cell phone, or the television set-top box today, when you buy those devices it's a natural that services are a part of it. And if you want to get to the point where subscription services are available to customers based on Web things, you need to have the services be a natural extension. So I'm going to log in here, a multi-user family log-in. And one of the things we think about is, the Windows guys have done a really good job of enabling services, I assume they'll take another step forward.

Notice the MSN Calendar widget and Outlook Notes "stickies" on the Welcome screen. Clearly, these are just prototype examples, because it wouldn't make sense for a single user's calendar or Outlook Notes to be present on the logon screen for a multi-user PC. But again, the point here isn't to show off the next version of Windows. Instead, Guggenheimer is simply showing how the MSN team could take advantage of the programming hooks in Windows going forward. It is, after all, an MSN demo.

GUGGENHEIMER: So if I look at the start menu today, there's a bunch of places there where we can hook in. Imagine the future as a user, being able to have access to services and local capabilities sort of seamlessly, so I don't have to go and do something different, for example, if I want to look at my finances. My finances can be in line with my music or my videos or my pictures, the things we do today. And with customization I might be able to take a symbol, stick it right there in line, think about my contacts in terms of buddy list today, again, that's sort a separate entity today, and when we can bring it in and make it cleaner, then I can go to my contacts. I might anchor this, I might tear it off and bring it out like we do with Messenger today, or some of the other messaging services.

He says, "imagine the future as a user, being able to have access to services and local capabilities ... seamlessly." In other words, the Start menu--or something like it--will expand from its current PC-centric view to one that incorporates Web services. You'll have access to My Photos (locally) and the MSN Photos site as well, if you want. This is an obvious expansion of the task-oriented UI introduced in XP, and given that Microsoft executives such as Jim Allchin have already admitted that this is the way Microsoft is moving, it should come as no surprise.

GUGGENHEIMER: So from the Windows perspective, I know this will be an open bar where anybody can plug in. I like the notion that the stuff that I care about, my services, I don't differentiate anymore those things that are sort of service oriented from those things that are located specifically on the machine; it's just an overall experience.

So in a future version of Windows, the Start Menu-like part of the UI will become "an open bar where [third party developers] can plug in [their own service points]." The screen shot above is an example showing the MSN Money Central stock quote service, integrated right into this new bar. However, before that can happen, Microsoft will ship a limited version in MSN 8.

Will the Longhorn Start menu resemble this bar/panel design? I've been told that Longhorn will retain the current taskbar/Start button arrangement but that the bar seen in the "Blackcomb" video will be available as well (though on the right side of the screen), providing the user with access to .NET-style functionality. So it seems that the taskbar was probably just hidden during the Guggenheimer demo.

Of course, the truth hasn't stopped Photoshop experts from drawing up their own faked screenshots based on this little movie. Here are a few fake shots I've seen; note that the first one features a road sort of like the one in the Microsoft video: Close but no cigar. The last two are especially humorous.

Fake Longhorn/Blackcomb shots: [Shot1] [Shot2] [Shot3] [Shot4]
Real MSN 8 shots: [Shot 1] [Shot 2] [Shot 3] [Shot 4]

The "Longhorn" Videos (April-May 2002)
In late April 2002, a new video purporting to show the Longhorn Start Menu appeared. This video, however, is clearly fake. What is shows is a Longhorn "shelf" similar to the MSN 8 bar/panel design seen in the "Blackcomb" video, above. But the shelf features nonsensical sections ("task shelf," with application shortcuts, and "common tasks," with disk locations, not tasks). The strangest part of the video, though, displays a bizarre duplicate view capability, where you can open a second My Computer window displaying the same folder as the first. In the video, a third duplicate is opened as well, and then they're dragged to the Recycle Bin, ala the Mac OS. But Microsoft would never subvert this most idiotic part of the Mac user interface, of course.

Anyway, here are some screenshots:

- The Longhorn "shelf"
- My Computer window
- Bizarre duplicate view capability
- A duplicate view context menu
- Transparency effect while dragging Windows Media Player
- Contents of My Music folder in Windows Media Player
- A desktop context menu

Thanks to MSBetas.net for discovering the video originally.

In early May 2002, a second "Longhorn" video appeared. This one, too, is fake.

Other Longhorn/Blackcomb Chicanery (Early 2002)
If you thought those were bad, I've got bad news: It's only downhill from here. When it comes to faked screenshots on the Internet, there's no such thing as too fake. Consider the following laughably bad screenshots:

- Logons are a favorite of screenshot fakers, for some reason, and there are various fake Longhorn, Blackcomb, and .NET (whatever that means) logon screens out there. Here's a particularly bad one that features an XML-based control panel (naturally) with such features as "Display under dialog modify forms" (of course).

- Here's one that still gets forwarded to me on a regular basis. It's a great image, but it's not Longhorn or Blackcomb. Instead, it's a DesktopX theme, made by Stardock, creators of the excellent WindowBlinds products. So why is this one so bad? Because no one even tried to fake it: It just shows an existing DesktopX theme. Oh, the shame.

- This fake screenshot includes some of the ugliest colors I've ever seen.

A 3D User Interface?
In the days leading up to the Windows Hardware Engineering (WinHEC) 2002 Conference in April 2002, a number of rumors were swirling that Microsoft would adopt a bizarre 3D user interface for Longhorn. These rumors, however, are wrong.

But the rumors can be explained, of course. They started because Microsoft quietly published a set of documents, aimed at hardware developers, that included some low-level information about the graphics requirements for Longhorn systems. Someone saw a blurb about DirectX 9.x being an underlying part of the Longhorn UI, remembered the Microsoft Research 3D UI project called Task Gallery, put two and two together, and... came up snake eyes.

Sorry folks, that ain't it.

The truth is that Microsoft is simply improving the quality of its existing Windows XP-based graphics architecture, and not moving to a totally new way of doing things. Windows XP debuted with GDI+ 1.0, the successor to the GDI (Graphics Device Interface) graphics subsystem used by previous Windows versions. Longhorn will include GDI+ 2.0 (or 1.x, depending on what they name it), and not a new graphics engine. But in Longhorn, hardware acceleration will be added to the base OS, through a Direct3D-based rendering system. This change will require Microsoft to significantly raise the minimum system requirements for Longhorn, but after the success of the colorful UI in XP, the company feels that it will be worth the effort. People with 3D hardware will have the best experience, though users with low-end hardware will still have a usable experience.

Of course, meeting this challenge will require video card makers to write compatible video drivers, and Microsoft pledged to support hardware acceleration in the Longhorn UI only for those cards that meet the new Longhorn hardware and driver requirements. The goal is stability: If a card can't meet Microsoft's strict requirements, it will have to fall back to the slower software-based rendering.

Incidentally, Longhorn's updated graphics architecture will make use of even more alpha blending than is present today in Windows XP (alpha blending being that transparency effect you see occasionally in XP), higher quality anti-aliasing for smoother onscreen graphics, better image effects such as convolution, and ClearType sub-pixel rendering for clearer text. These features will point the way to what Microsoft calls the .NET Smart Client, which will consist of a next-generation graphics stack for creating applications and components, a presentation platform for rich, interactive multimedia content and user interface, and an eDocuments platform for rendering and interacting with multiple, heterogeneous documents. Microsoft says that the .NET Smart Client combines the best of the Web and the Win32 API.

So What Else Do We Know?
Here are some features that definitely will be included in Longhorn:

SQL Server .NET-based file system - Originally slated for Blackcomb, I've now verified that Longhorn will ship with a new SQL Server .NET-based file system, originally code-named "Storage+". Based on the "Yukon" release of SQL Server, this file system will let Microsoft's search tools work across a wider range of storage devices, including the file system, Active Directory, SQL Server databases, and Exchange Server data stores. Moving all of these data sources to a single technology has been a long-time Microsoft goal.

DVD burning - Longhorn will expand on Windows XP's support for DVD-RAM and offer shell-based DVD burning capabilities similar to XP's CD burning features. It will also include DVD movie making capabilities, probably through Windows Movie Maker (see the next feature). Currently, only DVD+RW is known to natively supported, but I'd expect (or hope for) DVD-R and DVD-RW support to be added as well, since those formats are superior to DVD+RW.

Windows Movie Maker 2 - Windows Movie Maker (WMM) is being rearchitected from the ground up to support a much wider range of features, including multiple audio and video tracks, multiple video transition types, and other features. To see a preview of these features, check out Microsoft Producer, an add-on for Office XP's PowerPoint tool: That's the groundwork for the next version of Windows Movie Maker, available today.

Windows Media Player Refresh
- Because the next-generation Windows Media Player will ship in late 2002, Longhorn will include a much later version when it ships in 2005. The Corona player will support next generation Windows Media Audio (WMA) and Windows Media Video (WMV) codecs, and will fix many of the complaints from Windows Media Player for Windows XP (MPXP), including that product's inability to sort playlists.

Improved task-based interface - Longhorn will improve on the task-based paradigm in Windows XP and add support for more local services and Web services in the shell-mounted task lists.

Windows Update/Auto Update and Help & Support improvements - Some key Windows technologies, such as Windows Update, Auto Update, and Help & Support are being constantly updated, and we're going to see some changes in these areas with Longhorn. Windows Update will be slowly melded into a conduit for Microsoft's software subscription model and will eventually allow you to download (and pay for) Microsoft and third party applications. Auto Update will eventually allow users to automatically updated non-critical system components at the user's discretion.

Improved Network Setup Wizard - Microsoft has received a lot of complaints from users that the new Network Setup Wizard doesn't always explain what it's doing. It also doesn't offer any elegant way to reverse changes. These shortcomings will be addressed in Longhorn.

Mira 2 - At his March 2002 CeBIT keynote, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer revealed that the second iteration of the company's Windows Powered Smart Display technology, which might occur with the "Longhorn" release of Windows, will do away with the one user limit imposed by Windows XP, allowing up to two people to access the same desktop PC at the same time, one via the main display, and one via a remote Mira secondary display. "The [Mira] concept doesn't make sense otherwise, so that will be a version two feature," Ballmer said during a Q & A with the press at CeBIT. "Well, it will be now." For more information about Mira, please check out my Freestyle and Mira technology showcase!

What Else Is Still a Mystery?
Unfortunately, Longhorn isn't an open book at this point, and many features are still a mystery. Chief among these is the user interface, which will likely be a significant advance over XP's "Luna" interface.

The XP Media Center technologies could also be included in Longhorn, but that's not clear yet either.

A Prediction
I hate to do this kind of thing, since I'm not much of a prognosticator, but here goes: I think we're going to see a Windows XP refresh, possibly called Windows XP Second Edition (XP2E) or Windows XP Service Pack 2 (XP SP2), before Longhorn ships. This release will give the company an opportunity to slip in a few needed new features, like the Corona player, the Freestyle and Mira technologies, updated hardware and software support, and the like. And it wouldn't be surprising to see XP2E offered as an OEM-only release, one that would only ship with new PCs. There are precedents for this (Windows 95 had several OEM-only refreshes) but this time the reason is performance: Many of the features I mention above--including the Corona software, DVD burning capabilities, and new UI work--will pretty much require new Pentium 4 (or equivalent) hardware.

So will it happen? No one outside of Microsoft can say, and the company sure isn't talking. But I recently received word that Longhorn will be shipping far later than originally thought--think 2005--and this furthers the probability of an XP2E release before then. Remember that PC-buying consumers expect a new version of Windows each holiday season: XP refreshes each year until 2005 would satisfy this need.

UPDATE: A Prediction (Sort of) Fulfilled!
As noted in the previous section, I predicted that Microsoft would release a Windows XP refresh in late 2002. Well, at least one refresh of that sort is officially happening, and it's called Windows XP Service Pack 1 (SP1). XP SP1 will include bug fixes, as expected, but it will also ship with Freestyle and Mira technologies and Tablet PC software. But most importantly, it will ship both as a free downloadable update to XP, and as a standalone product. In other words, XP SP1 is the 2002 Windows release: It's nice to be right every once in a while. But the real proof will be in 2003-2004: How will Microsoft fill the time between XP SP1 and Longhorn?

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