Microsoft will likely market the next version of its Windows OS, code-named Longhorn, as Windows .NET when it ships sometime in 2004, sources at the company tell me. But what makes this Windows version a .NET product? Longhorn will ship with the latest version of the .NET Framework, which includes the .NET runtime environment required by .NET applications and services. But Longhorn will integrate with .NET at several levels, many of which will be more in your face than the .NET features in Windows XP.
The most obvious .NET-related UI enhancement to Longhorn will be the new Start Menu, which Microsoft has been steadily improving with each release of Windows. In XP, Microsoft enhanced the Start Menu to include various jumping points, including recently accessed applications, common system locations such as My Documents and My Pictures, and system-level tasks such as Control Panel, Help & Support, and Search.
Microsoft will expand this task-based approach in Longhorn to include Web-based services, and Microsoft is working on Longhorn interfaces that will enable developers to create Web services that you access from the new Start Menu.
Because of this integration between the Start Menu and services, Microsoft will need to enlarge the Start Menu yet again, although I'm sure the company will offset complaints by noting that it's simply taking advantage of the proliferation of high-resolution displays. Early Longhorn design documents and a public preview held in summer 2001 suggest that the Start Menu will resemble a large task bar that occupies the left or right side of the screen and that you can see at all times.
This type of UI integration will usher in a new generation of functionality: You'll be able to receive Web services alerts directly through Windows, rather than only through Windows Messenger, as is the case today. So, your Hotmail email account might dynamically update a running total of unread email that appears in your new Start Menu, and MSN Calendar scheduling alerts might appear nearby to warn you of impending meetings or anniversaries. These services, of course, are available today only on the Web, but with Longhorn, the line between local and remote functionality will be blurred considerably.
The people who will benefit least from this functionality are users who rarely work online or mobile users who are unable to access the Internet during business trips. Presumably, Microsoft will include local caching in the Longhorn feature set so that this UI integration with services is still available when users aren't connected.
The biggest advantage to this approach, however, is the ability for third-party developers to add services to Windows. For example, if you want to use AOL or Yahoo! for email and calendaring, I presume that these companies will upgrade these tools to work well within the new Longhorn UI.
Another aspect of Longhorn that will benefit from .NET integration is its system-updating capabilities. Today, you can configure Windows XP to automatically download crucial updates, but you must OK their installation, a manual step that might delay the application of important security updates. In Longhorn, Microsoft will improve the automatic download functionality so that users can let the system automatically download and install crucial updates and can even schedule updates to occur at a convenient time, such as 3:00 A.M., when the installation won't disrupt typical usage. As a fully connected OS, Longhorn will be able to update and even heal itself, using files that it proactively finds across the Internet.
And of course, Longhorn will probably be the first Windows version to succumb to Microsoft's impending software subscription model. If Microsoft uses subscription pricing for Longhorn, you'll probably be able to purchase the product in two versions: One that resembles the current product and includes separate pricing for new buyers and users who are upgrading, and one that costs far less but requires you to resubscribe on a yearly basis. Microsoft has implemented this subscription scheme with Office XP in certain countries, and will likely do so with the next Office version, Office .NET, in the United States as well. Expect the next Windows OS to follow suit.
Of course, with the Longhorn release recently delayed until mid-2004 at the earliest, plenty of time is left for changes. But even at this early stage, it's certain that Longhorn won't be a static, standalone product, as current Windows versions are. Instead, Longhorn will be a dynamic product that integrates tightly with Web services. This approach sounds exciting but opens up interesting security dilemmas. More important, the design raises questions about whether users will accept this level of interconnectivity.