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Road to Gold: The Long Road to Windows Vista Part 2: 2003

By 2003, Windows Vista--then still known only by its Longhorn codename--had already been delayed at least once, and it was starting to become clear that this OS wasn't going to show up any time soon. Throughout 2003, however, the mood was positive: Microsoft was going all-out on its next Windows release, and it seemed that the company was on the right track.


In January 2003, Microsoft announced that it would add low-level anti-virus (AV) APIs to Longhorn so that security companies could more easily integrate their products with Windows. (This never happened.) A month later, I received my first briefing about "Monad," the next-generation shell and scripting environment that would also, eventually, not be included with Windows Vista. However, I was pretty much blown away by Monad, which is being released as the Windows Power Shell. It's still not out, but is coming soon. Seriously.

In March 2003, Longhorn build 4008 leaked to the Internet (see my preview). This build wasn't much of an improvement over the previous alpha build, but it was the first to include the simple new interactive Setup that would continue over to the final shipping Vista version. Other previews of later Vista functionality include the simple Search window, a shell Details pane, and the first hints of Control Panel property sheets that were more than just simple dialogs. Microsoft continued to struggle to define the Sidebar, though those efforts would prove futile since the company later cancelled the project anyway.

That month, Microsoft started talking up WinFS again, another Vista technology that would eventually bite the dust. "We're going to have to redo the Windows shell; we're going to have to redo Office, and Outlook particularly, to take advantage" of the new data store, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said. "We're working hard on it. It's tough stuff."

Tough indeed. Even at this early stage, Longhorn was proving the better of Microsoft and it began dropping hints that Longhorn would be delayed enough for the company to ship it in parallel with a new version of Windows Server. "There could be a Longhorn Server or something that you lay on top of Windows 2003 that looks and smells like a great server for the Longhorn desktop," Brian Valentine, senior vice president of the Windows division at Microsoft said at the time. "It is in flux - that is a fair thing to say."

By April, another Longhorn alpha had arrived. This version--build 4015--was notable for the debut of the boot screen progress bar that continued through Vista RC2 (though the build 4015 version was blue, not green) (see my preview). It included a new Welcome Screen, new system notification balloons, and an unworthy version of WinFS (all were eventually dropped). A Download Manager shell location suggested Vista (and IE 7) would get a true Firefox-style download manager. That feature, too, was eventually dropped from both Vista and IE 7.

Most auspiciously, virtual folders--then called Libraries--also made their debut in build 4015. These folders aggregated content from around the user's hard drive and you could filter the views and save these views as folders. (Apple would release a subset of this feature as Spotlight over two years later, incidentally.) Sadly, Microsoft's grand vision for virtual folders was never realized: The company originally intended to replace all special shell folders (My Documents, My Pictures, and so on) with virtual folders. But after too many complaints from users, they backed off and big time. Virtual folders are still in Vista, but the feature is wonderfully hidden and few users will likely ever use it. (In other words, it now works almost exactly like Spotlight, in a weird role reversal.)

The biggest sin, however, was that Microsoft, for the first time began actively promoting Longhorn. In an advertisement for the upcoming WinHEC trade show (coming that May), Microsoft promised sneak peeks at "3D Graphics Enhancements in the Next Version of Microsoft Windows." My executive summary at the time summarized that Longhorn would include:

  • an enhanced desktop experience that includes advanced 3D graphics capabilities and driver functionality.

  • a new display driver model that will feature radically advanced functionality, stability, and reliability.

  • a radically redesigned user interface with a dynamically composed desktop featuring compelling new visual effects like graphically tumbling, rotating, and warped windows.

  • Hardware-accelerated and resolution independent anti-aliased 2D scalable graphics that will expose functionality based on the capabilities of the PC's 3D video hardware.

  • a rich 3D graphics architecture that is integrated directly into the Windows UI.

Gosh, that sounded so exciting four and a half years ago.

At the WinHEC show in May, the name "Aero" was thrown around for the first time. This would be the Longhorn user interface, Microsoft said, while the Avalon technologies were a replacement for the Windows graphics device interface (GDI) that would support XAML-based scripting as an alternative to more traditional programming techniques. A month later, Microsoft placed Longhorn as a calendar year 2005 product, alongside "Longhorn Office." Meanwhile, Windows Server vNext (Longhorn Server) was set for CY2006. (Fun fact: Aero was originally named as AERO and was an acronym. It stands for Authentic Energetic Reflective Open. Yeah, really.)

During briefings at the Microsoft campus in June that year, I found out about the company's plans for Microsoft Update (which would eventually replace Windows Update and be opened up to third parties). That latter bit has yet to happen.

In July, Microsoft VP Chris Jones got a bit too New Age when describing Microsoft's goals for Longhorn. "We are going to change the user interface of Windows so that whatever you are working on, the notion of people breathes through," he said. "What do I do the most with my PC? I communicate with people. The document needs to come to me with a context of 'Who?' Who was involved? Who is online right now?"

Microsoft VP Jim Allchin was a bit more real-world. "Just suppose that you get a phone call and your phone is connected to your machine," he said. "Wouldn't it be greater if your machine could look up all the past e-mail and documents you've exchanged with that person and organize them on the fly while the phone call is coming in?" It would be great. That feature never made it into Windows Vista, however, nor did any technology tying documents and other objects to users you interact with.

By August, Microsoft had decided that it would indeed link Longhorn (Windows Vista) with a Longhorn Server release. Microsoft senior VP Eric Rudder said at the time that "people were a little bit scared about setting expectations, because we're pretty serious, once we commit to the schedule for the product, to try to come close to honor that." Even less accurate than that statement, a video fake purporting to show the Longhorn user interface surfaced that had even me confused: It was very close to an early Longhorn prototype I had been shown back during a Windows Media "Corona" workshop. Ultimately, however, it was just another fake. Ah well.

A few days later, however, I had the real thing: My best source within Microsoft, again, showed up with the then-current version of the Aero UI (see my screenshots). In these shots, you can see for the first time the activity center-based interface elements and browser-like navigational controls that will forever mark the Vista-era Windows user interface.

In early September, I posted some screenshots of Longhorn build 4029, which was about a month old by that point. This build include mouse-over image previews (a feature from Microsoft's Digital Image Suite that is no longer present in Windows Vista), some Sidebar improvements, and some not-so-subtle moves toward Aero's navigational shell model, which utilizes a so-called "inductive user interface." This UI type "makes software applications simpler by breaking features into screens or pages that are easy to explain and understand," according to Microsoft.

Now we arrive at the high point of the Windows Vista beta: The Professional Developer Conference (PDC) 2003 (see my show report). We didn't realize it at the time, but it would all be downhill after PDC 2003. If you had told me then about the broken promises, dropped features, and utter lack of progress we would experience after that event, I'd never have believed it. At PDC 2003, we came, we saw, and we believed. We drank the Kool-Aid, gazed into a warm fuzzy Vista future and loved it. And virtually none of it would ever come to pass.

In any event, PDC 2003 got off to a great start with an early leak of Longhorn build 4051, the first public build Microsoft would release of its next Windows OS (see my screenshot galleries and lengthy review). I'll get to the product in a moment, but I think it's important to capture the raw excitement of the event. Remember, PDC is a developer show. But people were clamoring and crawling over each other to get the closet seats possible for the Gates keynote, as if it were a rock concert.

Then the infamous Longhorn rock video started. I've posted a low-quality movie of the video, shot with a hand-held camera during the event, as well as a series of still images showing off the amazing Aero UI we all had to look forward to. For the first time, however, I'm making the actual video available to the public via MSN Soapbox. It's highly possible that Microsoft will simply remove this video, so enjoy it while you can.

Video: Longhorn rock video

Try to imagine, if you can, the thrill of this moment. Sitting in a roaring crowd of developers, eager to sop up whatever Longhorn goodness Microsoft felt benevolent enough to bestow upon us. Sure, this video was followed by your standard droning, boring Bill Gates speech. But then, finally, he stepped aside and allowed Hillel Cooperman, then with the Windows User Experience team, to step us all through the wonders of Aero for the first time. At the show, Microsoft showed off a very early version of Longhorn with Aero. But we were transfixed. It was one of the most impressive technical presentations I've ever seen, and the only Microsoft event that has ever approached the blind faith of a Steve Jobs keynote.

Hillel walked us through a tour of Longhorn and the Aero user interface. He showed off the then-current Welcome screen, and to a hall full of ah-ing and ooh-ing, he demonstrated the wonderful translucent effects Aero would bring, such as the ability to see what was under windows. "We hope you think it's exciting and beautiful and professional, but it's still early," he said. "The most exciting part is that making a new look is relatively easy. Building this deep into the platform as part of the platform that you get to take advantage of, that's tough, and that's what we have been working on."

He moved windows around, showed how they animated as they appeared. "Watch how these actually animate onto the screen," he continued. "This is using things that are part of Avalon, just like Bill talked about--including things like pixel shaders, the desktop composition--all this advanced graphics functionality that to date has been typically the domain of game developers, now available to actually render you either on the desktop and, of course, in your applications."

To cheers, Hillel even showed off a 20-year-old copy of Visicalc running on top of Longhorn and Aero, "20 years' commitment to compatibility" as he put it. Hillel also emphasized the Sidebar, and maybe a bit too much in retrospect, given that it would be struck from the project within the year. "I want to talk to you guys about that guy on the side there," he said. "It looks pretty prominent, so we should address it. Right now we're calling it the Sidebar. We'll figure out what the final name is at some point. It is actually built in these common parts that show information, notification, services, that a user might really be interested in seeing when they're working on their main application, without popping up a window that covers it. For example, the time or their buddy list or a slide show, which, of course, you can add and remove these tiles here--or even an RSS-feed built right into the sidebar. But the best part about this is not that we have this functionality built into Windows. The best part, like everything I'm going to show you today, is that this is part of the platform. This is part of the SDK that you guys are going to get, you guys can write to it, and we think you can do great, great things with this."

Hillel also touted the organization capabilities of WinFS, another Vista feature that would eventually bite the dust. "WinFS is going to provide built-in search facilities," he said. "So I have 1,100 items. I want to find all the items that have something to do with Longhorn. So as I type I want you to watch the number right here, 1095, go down to 30, and see how fast that happens. By the time I'm done typing, we're down from 1,110 to 30 items right there in the system." The crowd at this point, honestly, broke out into wild applause.

After a more technical discussion of WinFS, Hillel wandered into Longhorn's communication history, which would display "all the faxes, all the files that Bill shared with me, all the notifications or e-mails." This feature, too, was quickly dropped from the product. Longhorn's peer-to-peer sharing features were next: This feature is at least partially available in the final version of Vista, though it doesn't approach the functionality Hillel showed off that day.

"It's fun to see Longhorn coming together," Gates said.

How impressive was this at the time? Here's what I blogged during the keynote: "Well, we finally got a lengthy Longhorn/Aero demo and ... my goodness. Longhorn is going to rock, and we're only disappointed that the build we got doesn't show this system's best features off effectively. The transparent window effects--called glass windows, appropriately enough--are beautiful. The ability to embed video and any other kind of media into documents, apps, and anything else you can think off--even small previews you see when you mouse-over a scrollbar--are just incredible, surpassing anything on any system available today (yes, including Mac OS X Panther). The visuals in Longhorn are just going to blow you away."

After the Gates keynote, Microsoft group vice president Jim Allchin provided a more technical look at Longhorn, along with programming gurus Don Box and Chris Anderson. Much of their talk involved the new XAML-based programming paradigm that was made possible by Longhorn's Avalon, Indigo, WinFS, and WinFX APIs.

If PDC 2003 was a purely euphoric time, build 4051 itself was less impressive. It offered none of the Aero niceties we had been shown at the show but instead featured a short-lived, XP-like UI called Slate. The special shell folders were an odd mix of Libraries and standard folders. And you know, there isn't much else to say. It was sort of gray instead of sort of blue like previous releases. Much of what was written about this build at the time revolved around squeezing out the best possible performance. But it was mostly a dog.

In December, I gave a presentation about Longhorn to a Boston-area Windows user group, the first of many such presentations I'd give over the years. Longhorn, I said, involved several main pillars: Avalon (Presentation), Aero (User experience), WinFS (Storage), Indigo (Communications and collaboration), and Palladium (Privacy and security). Of these, one pillar (WinFS) would be dropped completely while another (Palladium) would be so stripped down that it's no longer considered a pillar at all.

By that month, Microsoft was getting ready to release its first beta of Windows XP Service Pack 2 (SP2), which would eventually prove to be a major release that would involve many new security features. Few understood this at the time, but XP SP2--and the underlying security issues that caused this release to happen in the first place--would have a major impact on both the feature-set and delivery time table for Longhorn/Windows Vista as well.

Continue with Road to Gold: The Long Road to Windows Vista Part 3: 2004...

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