For three years now, I've been charting the progress (or lack of progress) Microsoft has made with its next generation Windows operating system, code-named Longhorn. It all started back in January 2002, when I released my first iteration of The Road to Windows "Longhorn": What we know about the next version of Windows. The goal was to separate fact from myth. In that article, I exposed numerous Longhorn frauds and discussed some of the features Microsoft was then known to be including in Longhorn. Some of these, like WinFS (then identified only as a "SQL Server .NET-based file system) have since been culled from Longhorn and will be delivered separately. Others, like Windows Movie Maker 2 and a Windows Media Player refresh, have since shipped independently of Windows because of Longhorn's ever-increasing delays and will be replaced by newer versions in Longhorn.
In May 2003, I followed up this original Longhorn preview with The Road to Windows "Longhorn" 2003, which featured concrete Longhorn information culled from that year's WinHEC trade show. It also included Microsoft's first public Longhorn release schedule (RTM in 2005, ahem), a detailed look at the product's componentization, and an overview of the Desktop Compositing Engine (DCE). However, in an August 2003 update, I revealed Longhorn's Aero user interface for the first time.
Then, in August 2004, I wrote the third installment, logically dubbed The Road to Windows "Longhorn" 2004, after Microsoft publicly revealed that it would delay WinFS and ship Windows XP/2003 versions of key Longhorn technologies, such as Avalon and Indigo. Microsoft also committed to a final release schedule for Longhorn, noting that the software would be delivered in 2006. Not late 2006, mind you, but mid-year. In November 2004, I updated that article with detailed Longhorn and Office 12 beta schedules which highlighted many of the milestones those releases would experience en route to their May 2006 final releases.
A new schedule
The release schedule I published in The Road to Windows "Longhorn" 2004 was accurate at the time it was published. However, as is so often the case, Microsoft has revised that schedule again and again. What hasn't changed is the May 2006 RTM (release to manufacturing) date: Though Longhorn will not be made publicly available until the Holiday 2006 selling season, Microsoft still plans to complete development by mid-2006.
A general roadmap
Here's the general Longhorn roadmap.
Windows XP Professional x64 Edition: April 2005
Longhorn Client Beta 1: H1 2005
Longhorn Client Beta 2: H2 2005/Q1 2006
Longhorn Client RTM: Mid-2006
WinFS Beta: Mid-2006
Longhorn SP1: H1 2007
Longhorn Server: H1 2007
In order to build excitement around Longhorn, Microsoft will disclose information about this next generation operating system in stages. Recently, Microsoft used the Windows Hardware Engineering (WinHEC) 2005 conference to prepare developers and device driver makers for the changes coming in Longhorn. WinHEC attendees receive a pre-Beta 1 build of the operating system, build 5048, which Microsoft described as a Longhorn Developer Preview build.
Then, Microsoft will utilize a disclosure approach it calls "rolling thunder," which will build up to a crescendo by the Longhorn launch. With the Beta 1 release, due on June 30, 2005, Microsoft will discuss the "essence of Longhorn." The company hopes to position Longhorn as a major, must-have upgrade for both business and consumer customers. It will then try to build excitement with consumers starting with Beta 2 (see below).
Longhorn release schedule
Not specific enough? Here's the exact Longhorn delivery schedule, as of now:
Longhorn Developer Preview (alpha)
April 24, 2005
Longhorn Beta 1
June 30, 2005
Longhorn Beta 2
Longhorn Client Release Candidate 0 (RC0)
Longhorn Client Release Candidate 1 (RC1)
Longhorn Client release to manufacturing (RTM)
Longhorn Launch (widespread public availability)
Longhorn Server RTM/Longhorn Client SP1 RTM
Second half of 2006/first half of 2007 (Client RTM + 6 months)
Notice the inclusion of a RC0 build, which is unusual. The last time Microsoft shipped an RC0 build of a Windows product, I believe, was with Windows Millennium Edition (Me). RC0 releases are typically designed to give Microsoft's hardware and software partners enough time to develop drivers and compatible software in time for the final release of a product.
Microsoft briefly considered having only one beta release, but the company is now "firm" on two betas. The company also expects to ship a wide range of interim builds, many of which will be made available to the public. This will be a first for the company.
Here's what we can expect from the major milestones:
Longhorn Beta 1
Longhorn Beta 1 will be targeted at Microsoft's select group of beta testers, most of whom previously beta tested Windows XP/2000 and Windows Server 2003. Unlike the alpha releases, which were designed primarily for developers, Longhorn Beta 1 will be accessible to Microsoft's PC maker, hardware, and software partners, Microsoft MVPs, and the like. It will also be made available to users through MSDN Professional and up, TechNet, and potentially to attendees of developer-oriented trade shows such as WinHEC 2005, TechEd 2005, and/or Professional Developers Conference (PDC) 2005.
Like all Longhorn releases, Longhorn Beta 1 will be distributed on DVD (and not CD), and will be downloadable by testers in ISO format. Only the Longhorn Premium Edition will be made available to testers in the Beta 1 timeframe, Microsoft reports. English, German, and Japanese languages will be available.
Longhorn Beta 2
Longhorn Beta 2 will be more widely distributed than Beta 1. At this time, enthusiasts and other users will be able to download a public beta version through the Customer Preview Program (CPP).
The Customer Preview Program will continue throughout the release candidate phase, and Microsoft expects more general customers to begin evaluating these public pre-release builds as the final release date gets closer and closer.
New product editions
Though these plans could change, Microsoft is currently planning to ship an amazing array of product editions, or SKUs, in the Windows Longhorn family. These are the currently-scheduled versions that will ship in May 2006:
Longhorn Starter Edition
Analogous to Windows XP Starter Edition.
Longhorn Home Edition
Analogous to Windows XP Home Edition.
Longhorn Media Center Edition
A superset of Home Edition that includes the Media Center functionality. Analogous to XP Media Center Edition.
Longhorn Professional Edition
Analogous to Windows XP Professional Edition.
Longhorn Small Business Edition
A new product edition aimed at the small business market. Currently very similar to XP Professional Edition.
Longhorn Mobility/Tablet PC Edition
Analogous to Windows XP Tablet PC Edition.
Longhorn Premium Edition
A new product edition that bridges the consumer and business versions and includes all of the features from the Home, Premium, Pro, Small Business, and Tablet PC Editions (but not Starter Edition). The new Premium edition will also add value to Microsoft's business-oriented Software Assurance (SA) customers.
None of these product names are final, of course, and all versions except Starter Edition will ship in both 32-bit (x86) and 64-bit (x64) variants. One of the problems with this approach is that Microsoft will have a hard time communicating the differences between each SKU, in my opinion. It will be interesting to see how this develops. My advice to Microsoft is to cut back on the SKUs and offer only consumer and business versions. The consumer version should include everything from Home and Premium/Media Center Editions, while the business version should include the features from Pro, Small Business, and Tablet PC Editions.
Also, though Microsoft briefly considered not shipping retail versions of Longhorn at all, and would have required users to acquire the OS with a new PC purchase, those plans were cancelled. As with Windows XP, the various Longhorn editions will ship in retail and OEM (PC maker) versions.
Given the seemingly never-ending nature of Longhorn's years-long development time, Microsoft has a bit of a sell-job on its hands when it comes to promoting the product to consumers and business users. In this section, I'll focus on some of the Longhorn features that Microsoft will highlight to its customers throughout 2005. Some of these features are well-known already, while some are less well known. But all of them are considered by the software giant to be key technological investments that will pay off with a spike in customer adoptions.
Longhorn will include advanced graphics capabilities that will instantly differentiate Longhorn PCs from those based on Windows XP. "This is exciting stuff," Microsoft lead product manager Greg Sullivan told me recently. "Longhorn's graphics will fully exploit the power of 3D graphics accelerators and provide a very rich user experience." Longhorn's tiered graphics system will automatically tune itself according to the capabilities of your PC. If you have a powerful PC, Longhorn will provide the high-end Aero Glass user interface, which includes stunning animations, vector graphics-based icons and screen elements, and translucencies. Less powerful PCs will utilize the Aero Express user interface, which provides an Aero Glass-like UI that is based on XP-level graphics technologies. For legacy systems or those used by corporations that don't wish to retrain users on the new Longhorn UI, Longhorn will also offer a backwards compatibility mode that resembles the stock Windows 2000 user interface.
The important thing to remember about Longhorn's display capabilities is that they aren't just there to look cool. Document icons will provide mini-thumbnails that resemble the actual document, providing at-a-glance recognition to the file you may be looking for. Animations will be used to help you understand where a window goes when you minimize it. And so on: More of Longhorn's graphical changes will be revealed during the Beta 1 and Beta 2 timeframes.
Powerful, Reliable & Secure
Microsoft hopes to make Longhorn what it calls a "high performance, robust, and safe operating system." To accomplish this, it will need to overhaul the way user accounts work in Windows. Today, Windows XP supports Limited User accounts, administrator accounts (and others, in XP Pro and newer), but few people use anything but administrator-level accounts because the Limited User account is almost useless.
In Longhorn, Microsoft will introduce the new least privileged user account (LUA), which is basically a secure code compartment in which most application code will typically run. When trusted applications need administrator-level access, they can temporarily run in Protected User mode. This feature will help sidestep most of the problems home users now face with Limited User accounts, but administrators in businesses can turn it off.
As with Windows XP SP2, Longhorn will provide strong security warnings and guidance when it detects errant actions. However, Longhorn's warning notifications can occur because of local code as well, and not just because of Internet-based communications, as in XP SP2. The idea is that users will feel safe, and they will be able to undo any action, further strengthening the security aura.
Overall, the security and management advancements in Longhorn will be evolutionary when compared with Windows XP with Service Pack 2. For example, the new security policy features in XP SP2 will be expanded dramatically in Longhorn, but will work the same way. So administrators will face a shorter learning curve with understanding how Group Policy works in Longhorn.
Longhorn will support a new updating model called hot patching, through which Microsoft will be able to apply updates to any non-kernel code, including drivers, without requiring a reboot. Longhorn will still need to be rebooted after certain patches, of course, but there will be much fewer than with Windows XP SP2 or Windows Server 2003: 70 percent less is the goal.
Additionally, Longhorn will feature a new instant-on capability that will see Longhorn-savvy systems resume from Standby in 2 seconds or less. And cold boot time should be 50 percent less than with XP on the same system, Microsoft claims.
IT Operational Efficiency
For businesses looking at deploying Longhorn on the desktop, Longhorn will offer a number of advantages over Windows XP, reducing the costs of deployment, management and support.
Longhorn will be able to detect and eliminate spyware and malware, using next-generation versions of the Windows AntiSpyware and anti-virus products that Microsoft is now developing. Administrators will also be able to scan PCs and the network for vulnerabilities.
Longhorn will include technology based on the Encrypting File System (EFS) that helps prevent data exposure from lost or stolen laptops. You'll be able to forward event logs to a central location.
In Longhorn, applications will launch and load files 15 percent faster than with Windows XP.
Longhorn will feature new image creation, deployment, and management tools that will make deployment much simpler. Longhorn's componentized underpinnings will reduce the number of install images corporations are required to maintain. A new version of the User State Migration Tool (USMT) will further improve state migration by taking advantage of Longhorn's native scripting environment. Additionally, Longhorn will feature a new version of Remote Assistance.
Longhorn will offer more natural ways to access, organize and use information, and is designed to improve Information Worker (IW) productivity. The key to this, of course, is the new Fast Search feature, which many people incorrectly assumed was being removed from Longhorn when Microsoft delayed WinFS to a post-Longhorn release. That's not the case. Longhorn fast search will provide near-instant searching of your PC, the local network, and the Internet. And it's designed to be intuitive to existing Windows users.
Fast Search will feature new ways to organize data, including Lists, AutoLists and filters (Figure). Search results will include data from different store types (documents, email messages, pictures, etc.), and can be sorted by custom meta-data. And Longhorn's new shell windows, which will feature a handy "breadcrumb" navigation feature, will also include instant view filtering based on Fast Search technology and file preview (Figure).
Another Fast Search feature, called Stacks (Figure), will help aggregate content by such things as authors, keywords, type, and so on. You can then group Stacks by various properties, such as name, size, modified date, type, or authors, in order to provide multiple relevant views on the same data.
Microsoft believes that Fast Search will reduce the time users spend searching for files on their PC by 80 percent. And re-directed folder synchronization will be 50 percent faster than with Windows XP.
(Speaking of WinFS, Microsoft will ship a preview of that relational storage technology when the Longhorn client is completed in mid-2006. WinFS, when it ships, will enable even more powerful search than does Fast Search. However, Microsoft has not yet determined when it will ship WinFS or how it will package and distribute the technology.)
Longhorn will more reliably resume from crashes, and include better application management and back-up and restore functionality.
With Longhorn, creating ad hoc networks based on peer-to-peer technologies will be simple and seamless, opening up new avenues for group collaboration. Microsoft sees information workers creating these ad hoc networks in meetings so they can share presentations and collaborate on documents. A new domain-like networking scheme called a castle will replace workgroups for home users. In a castle type network, user credentials can move from machine to machine without a centralized server.
Longhorn's ability to synchronize data between PCs and various portable devices will be unsurpassed. It will also be a wireless networking wunderkind. Or, as Microsoft puts it, Longhorn will let you "work together and accomplish more anytime, anywhere." There you go.
Alpha Longhorn builds have hinted at what's to come: A universal synchronization manager called SyncManager will manage the connections between software and hardware.
And the new wireless networking stack will support Anywhere Remote Access and a more seamless way to transition between networks, and, in the case of multiple available networks, automatically utilize the one with the most bandwidth.
Next Generation Platform
Conceptually, the Longhorn platform will be based on Avalon (presentation subsystem), Indigo (messaging and Web services), and the WinFX programming model, which is based on .NET managed code. Last August, Microsoft revealed that these technologies would be provided "down level" to users running Windows XP with Service Pack 2 and Windows Server 2003 with Service Pack 1. It would seem, peripherally, that Longhorn doesn't have a lot of unique technology to offer developers. That's not quite true.
First, by providing these technologies to existing users, Microsoft is dramatically expanding the markets for applications and services based on Avalon and Indigo, giving developers incentive to adopt these technologies more quickly. In this way, WinFX will perform the same role the Win32 API did over a decade ago. Second, Longhorn will include unique new features that are not available to XP SP2 users, making that platform more valuable to Longhorn adopters. The most obvious of these, of course, is the Aero user interface, which will make video-quality 3D effects a natural part of the PC experience.
One thing users should be aware of is that Longhorn will include a new kernel and will thus not offer the same level of compatibility with legacy 16-bit and 32-bit code that Windows XP does today. For business users, Microsoft believes that Virtual PC 2007 will help broaden corporations' compatibility options. But the company will also ship an early release of the Longhorn Compatibility Toolkit in 2005 to get users ready for the changes.
Longhorn hardware recommendations
When it comes to Longhorn, the single most frequently-asked question I get is, "What are Longhorn's hardware requirements?" To date, Microsoft hasn't yet answered that question, though arguably even the eventual answer will be useless anyway, since the minimum requirements for Microsoft operating systems are usually hopelessly weak. However, I can present the next best thing today for the first time: the hardware Microsoft will recommend for Longhorn. That is, this level of hardware should present users with an acceptable Longhorn experience, complete with all the bells and whistles.
A few preliminary comments. First, Microsoft believes that the majority of Windows XP machines purchased in 2005 will be Longhorn capable. That doesn't mean that they will be Longhorn-savvy, however. Instead, all 2005-era XP machines should at least provide an XP-like experience in Longhorn. In order to get the full meal deal, so to speak, however, you'll want to ensure that your hardware purchases this year meet certain requirements.
Second, because of the advanced graphics technology in Longhorn, you will need a graphics card that is supported with a Longhorn Display Model Driver (LDDM). In mid-2004, Microsoft described these cards as being DirectX 9 compliant, though it's unclear whether the requirements will increase. Microsoft will provide clearer graphics card guidelines during the Longhorn Beta testing cycle, according to documentation I've viewed.
Here are Microsoft's Longhorn hardware recommendations:
Desktop CPU: 3 GHz Intel Pentium 4 processor with HyperThreading Technology 530 (or higher) or 3 GHz Intel Xeon processor with 2 MB L2 cache, or AMD Athlon 64, Sempron, or Opteron 100, 200, or 800 processor, single or dual-core versions.
Mobile CPU: 1.86 GHz Intel Pentium M processor 750 (or higher), or AMD Turion 64 Mobile Technology, Mobile Sempron, or Mobile Athlon 64 processor.
RAM: 512 MB of RAM or more, all platforms.
At WinHEC 2005, Microsoft did reveal a vague set of specifications for PCs that will run Longhorn, and provide the advanced Aero Glass interface. A modern Pentium 4-based PC (or the AMD equivalent) with 512 MB of RAM and a dedicated graphics card capable of DirectX 9.0 compatibility will run Longhorn just fine, I'm told. Systems with less resources--like most notebook computers and systems with Celeron processors--will default to the low-end Aero Express user interface, Microsoft says.
A living document
Like all of my "Road to Longhorn" articles, I'll be updating this version throughout the year as new information arises. The next obvious update will occur in July 2005, after Microsoft releases Longhorn Beta 1. But as any other updates come up, I'll post them here.