Windows "Longhorn" FAQ

Once envisioned as a minor upgrade to Windows XP, Windows "Longhorn" took on all-new importance in early 2002 when Microsoft decided to reach for the brass ring and make this upcomin...

Paul Thurrott

October 6, 2010

13 Min Read
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Once envisioned as a minor upgrade to Windows XP, Windows "Longhorn" took on all-new importance in early 2002 when Microsoft decided to reach for the brass ring and make this upcoming Windows release an all-encompassing major upgrade with a new security architecture called Palladium, a hardware 3D-enabled user interface, and many more exciting new features. Here's the first--and most comprehensive--Longhorn FAQ ever created, constantly updated to include the latest information about this release.

NOTE: This FAQ is now retired. Please refer to my Windows Vista FAQ for more up-to-date information about this release.

Q: What is Windows "Longhorn"?

A: "Longhorn" is the codename for a major wave of technology and platform software from Microsoft. This generation of software will include new versions of Windows, Windows Server, .NET, MSN, Microsoft Office, and other products.

Windows "Longhorn" is the next major desktop Windows release, which will follow Windows XP; there is also a minor Windows Server revision that will ship in the Longhorn wave. Originally expected to be a fairly minor upgrade, Windows Longhorn will now include a number of new features including a revised task-based (or "iterative") user interface, an extensible, dock-like, Sidebar, and a SQL Server 2003-based storage engine called WinFS (Windows Future Storage). Microsoft said that Longhorn would be a desktop-only release in November, 2002, when the company told me that, "Customer requirements dictate our release strategies and timing for Windows products. Customers have asked that we map our server releases more closely to how they can consume and implement advances and innovations we deliver. Given the deployment cycles and budgeting that customers work through, and given the significant customer interest in our upcoming release of Windows Server 2003, we have determined that another major release of Windows Server in the Longhorn client timeframe does not meet the needs of most of our customers." However, those plans were up in the air until mid-2003, when the company revealed, finally, that it would indeed ship a Longhorn Server product as well.

Q: Will there be different Windows Longhorn versions?

A: Yes. Like Windows XP, Windows Longhorn will ship in different editions, though they might change from today's Home, Professional, Tablet PC, Media Center, 64-Bit Professional (Itanium), Professional Edition x64, and Embedded Editions. For example, I'm expecting the capabilities of today's XP Media Center Edition to be incorporate into Home Edition or, perhaps, a high-end version for home that might be called Premium Edition.

Q: So what will be new and different in Windows Longhorn?

A: Here's what we know about Longhorn at this early stage:

  • Longhorn will feature a task-based (or "iterative") interface that goes far beyond the task-based interface found today in Windows XP. Microsoft has been working to move beyond the dated desktop metaphor still used by most desktop operating systems; I explain some of Microsoft's early work on task-based interfaces in my old Activity Centers preview. This new user interface, or "user experience," is code-named "Aero" and is based on a new .NET-based graphics API called "Avalon," which replaces earlier graphics APIs such as GDI and GDI+, the latter of which debuted in Windows XP. 

  • Longhorn will require 3D video hardware to render special effects that will make the screen more photorealistic and deep. This doesn't mean that the basic windows and mouse interface is being replaced, just that it will look a lot better. For more information, check out my exhaustiveRoad to Longhorn, Part Two showcase and my PDC 2003 coverage. 

  • Longhorn will optionally include the Palladium security technology Microsoft is developing with Intel and AMD (see the next question for details). 

  • Longhorn will include new anti-virus (AV) APIs that will help developers more easily integrate their wares into the base OS. Microsoft will also offer Longhorn customers a subscription-based AV feature that use AutoUpdate to keep your system up-to-date with new virus signatures. 

  • Longhorn will include integrated recordable DVD capabilities and will work with every type of recordable DVD format. Digital media enthusiasts will be able to copy video from a digital camcorder directly to recordable DVD, bypassing the system's hard drive entirely, if desired. 

  • Longhorn will include an advanced version of the successful Error Reporting Tool (ERT) that shipped in Windows XP; the goal is that only a small number of customers should have to report a bug to Microsoft before the company fixes it and ships the fix electronically and automatically to users. 

  • Longhorn will include a new Setup routine that installs the OS in about 15 minutes. 

  • Longhorn will feature hundreds of new APIs that will let provide access to the new system's features. The Win32 API from previous Windows versions is being replaced by a new .NET-based API called WinFX, for example. It will also feature a new communications and collaboration subsystem, dubbed Indigo.

For more information about the technology in Longhorn, please refer to my exclusive Longhorn Alpha Preview, Longhorn Alpha Preview 2: Build 4008 and Longhorn Alpha Preview 3: Build 4015 articles.

One thing that has changed is that the initial release of Longhorn will no longer include the Windows Future Storage (WinFS) relational database-based storage engine as originally planned. Instead, Microsoft will deliver WinFS as a free out-of-band upgrade for Longhorn users a year after Longhorn ships.

Q: I keep hearing that WinFS is a new file system. Is Microsoft abandoning NTFS?

A: No. WinFS is implemented as an add-on to NTFS and is not a completely new file system. Rather, it is a new storage engine built on the NTFS file system.

Q: So what's the point?

A: Microsoft is trying to make it easier for you to find your data on our ever-increasing hard drives. By adding relational database capabilities to the file system, it will take less time to find documents, email, and other data. After all, as one Microsoft executive asked me recently, "Why can we find anything we want on the Internet in seconds, but it takes so long to find our own data on our own PCs?" In addition to the underlying WinFS technology, Microsoft is also adding a new file system concept called Libraries, which will organize like collections of data in Longhorn, regardless of where they are physically stored in the system. For example, a Photos & Movies Library would collect links to every digital photo and digital video on your system.

"I should not care about location when I save," says Microsoft VP Chris Jones. "Why can't I just click on my computer and it shows me my documents? It is a computer. It should know what a document is, what I have edited and annotated, what I have searched for before, and what other places I have looked for documents. It is not just documents on my computer I am looking for. It is documents I care about."

For more information about Libraries, please visit myRoad to Longhorn, Part Two showcase.

Q: So what's changing from a developer's standpoint?

A: In the technology generations leading up to Longhorn, Microsoft has been moving to a .NET-based managed code environment dubbed WinFX, and the Longhorn generation will finally mark a clean split with the Win32 APIs of the past. That is, Win32 will be in maintenance mode, and all new development will occur with WinFX managed APIs. One such API, Avalon, forms the basis for the new Desktop Compositing Engine (DCE) in Longhorn that replaces GDI and GDI+. These and other new Longhorn APIs will utilize the XML Application markup language (XAML) to make Longhorn more accessible to developers than ever before. The idea is to significantly reduce the number of APIs and make the APIs more standardized. Today, there are over 76,000 Win32 APIs, and countless wrappers. With Longhorn, Microsoft hopes to reduce the API set to 8,000 to 10,000.

Another significant change in Longhorn involves device drivers. In the past, Microsoft allowed customers to use non-signed drivers, which helped compatibility, but caused stability problems. No more: In Longhorn, users hoping to take advantage of the system's exciting new capabilities will only be able to use signed drivers.

Developers interested in Longhorn should examine the Visual Studio 2005 "Whidbey" release, currently in beta, and the Longhorn SDK. which includes developer-accessible UI components and behaviors.

Q: This sounds like a huge change from today's Windows. Will my current applications still work with Longhorn?

A: Yes. Microsoft has even pledged to retain DOS compatibility with Longhorn, though it's currently unclear whether DOS support will be improved over what's available today in Windows XP.

Q: What's with this Palladium stuff I keep hearing about?

A: One of the most exciting aspects of Longhorn is its optional integration with Palladium, Microsoft's technology for realizing its Trustworthy Computing vision. Palladium--now called Next Generation Secure Computing Base (NGSCB)--is basically a secure run-time environment for Windows and other operating systems that allows a coming generation of software applications and services to protect the end user from privacy invasion, outside hacking, spam, and other electronic attacks. Palladium requires special hardware security chips and microprocessors (which will be made by Intel and AMD) and doesn't interfere with the normal operation of the PC. That is, Palladium-based PCs will still operate normally, working with legacy operating systems and applications. But specially-made Palladium applications and services will offer a range of features of functionality not found in the non-Palladium world, and if the initiative is successful, we'll one day be running only Palladium-based software.

If you're familiar with the .NET model, you might be aware of the notion of "managed" and "non-managed" (or legacy) code. Palladium will institute a similar model for PC software, where a trusted execution mode is used for Palladium applications and services and the old, "untrusted" mode is used for legacy code.

Microsoft designed Palladium around the following ideals:

  • Palladium will tell you who you're dealing with online, and what they're doing. It will uniquely identify you to your PC and can limit what arrives (and runs on) that computer. Information that comes in from the Internet will be verified before you can access it. 

  • Palladium protects information using encryption to seal data so that "snoops and thieves are thwarted." The system can maintain document integrity so that documents can't be altered without your knowledge. 

  • Palladium stops viruses and worms. The system won't run unauthorized programs, preventing viruses from trashing your system. 

  • Palladium stops spam. Spam will be stopped before it even hits your email inbox. Unsolicited mail that you might actually want to receive will be allowed through if it has credentials that meet your user-defined standards. 

  • Palladium safeguards privacy. In addition to the system's ability to seal data on your PC, Palladium can also seal data sent across the Internet using software agents that ensure the data reaches only the proper people. Newsweek reports that the agent has been nicknamed "My Man," a goof on ".NET My Services," "My Documents," and other similar names at Microsoft. 

  • Palladium controls information after it's sent from your PC. Using Digital Rights Management (DRM) technology, Palladium can be used to securely distribute music, movies, and other intellectual property securely over the Internet. Movie studios and the recording industry could use this technology to let their customers exercise their fair use rights to copy audio CDs and movies, for example. "It's a funny thing," says Bill Gates. "We came at this thinking about music, but then we realized that e-mail and documents were far more interesting domains." Gates says that Palladium could ensure that email designated as private could not be forwarded or copied to other people, for example. Or, the Newsweek reports reads, "you could create Word documents that could be read only in the next week. In all cases, it would be the user, not Microsoft, who sets these policies."

You can find out more about Palladium in my WinInfo article, Microsoft's Secret Plan to Secure the PC, which was written when this initiative was first revealed. But remember, there is a ton of misinformation about Palladium on the Internet ("It will require proprietary Microsoft changes to TCP/IP," "It won't run on Linux," and other similar claptrap), but most of that is completely untrue. People fear what they don't understand, but Palladium is about securing the PC and protecting your privacy, plain and simple. Microsoft isn't trying to usurp your PC.

Q: I thought the next version of Windows was code-named "Blackcomb."

A: Originally, that was the case. However, plans change.

The existence of Longhorn was first revealed by Windows product manager Tom Laemmel, who I first met July 17, 2001 during an XP press tour. Laemmel spilled the beans to eWeek a few days later, and Microsoft executive vice president Jim Allchin verified that a new interim release, Longhorn, would ship before Blackcomb. Since then, information about Longhorn has appeared in Microsoft and Department of Justice (DOJ) legal filings related to the Microsoft antitrust case. And starting in summer 2004, Microsoft began detailing its Windows product roadmap. The current plan calls for Longhorn to be followed by Longhorn Server a year later, a Longhorn Server R2 release two years after that, and the Blackcomb release in 2011. Under the terms of the new schedule, Longhorn, Longhorn Server, and Blackcomb will all be major releases. You can find out more about this schedule--and these products--in my interview with Bob Muglia.

Q: So when will Longhorn ship?

A: Microsoft says that it will deliver Longhorn in 2006.

Q: When will the Longhorn beta start?

A: Mid-2005.

Q: So how can I get Longhorn?

A: Right now, only WinHEC 2005 attendees and MSDN customers can get the latest Longhorn public build (along with other related technologies, such as the Visual Studio 2005 beta, SQL Server 2005 ("Yukon") beta, and the Longhorn SDK). Microsoft says it will release Beta 1 to a much wider audience.

Q: What's up with the name Longhorn?

A: As I first revealed, the Longhorn name wasn't chosen randomly. Remember that Windows XP was code-named Whistler and the next version of Windows, at the time, was code-named Blackcomb. Both of these names come from ski areas in British Columbia, close to Microsoft's headquarters. At the foot of Whistler Mountain, there is a saloon named Longhorn that serves the local skiing population. So if you're ever in the area and want to take in some local color, Longhorn is a nice stop? after you're done with Whistler.

Q: I can't get enough of Longhorn! I need more.

A: Check out my new Longhorn Activity Center, a cool front-end to all of the Longhorn content I've created.


Last updated June 22, 2005


Windows Longhorn release schedule

Longhorn revealed: June 24, 2001

Longhorn release verified by Microsoft executive vice president Jim Allchin: June 27, 2001

Longhorn mentioned in Microsoft antitrust settlement filing: November 1, 2001

Longhorn details first revealed on the SuperSite for Windows: January 14, 2002

Longhorn alpha build 3670 (internal release only): August 19, 2002

Longhorn alpha build 3683 (internal release only): September 23, 2002

Longhorn alpha build 4008 (internal release only): February 19, 2003

Longhorn build 4008 leaks: February 28, 2003

Private Longhorn developer preview: March 2003

Longhorn graphics and security features revealed: May 6-8, 2003

SuperSite for Windows reveals Longhorn UI: August 19, 2003

Paul first reveals Longhorn build 4051 details: October 26, 2003

Longhorn public developer preview (build 4051) released: October 27, 2003

Longhorn build 4053 leaks: March 4, 2004

Microsoft reveals Longhorn schedule: August 27, 2004

Longhorn build 5048 (WinHEC 2005) released: April 24, 2005

Microsoft announces Windows Vista name: July 22, 2005

Longhorn Beta 1: August 3, 2005

Longhorn Beta 2: Expected November 2005

Longhorn final release RTM: Expected May 2006

Longhorn general availability: Q3 2006

About the Author(s)

Paul Thurrott

Paul Thurrott is senior technical analyst for Windows IT Pro. He writes the SuperSite for Windows, a weekly editorial for Windows IT Pro UPDATE, and a daily Windows news and information newsletter called WinInfo Daily UPDATE.

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