Road to Gold: The Long Road to Windows Vista Part 1: 2001-2002

For the first time, perhaps, I don't even know where to begin.


I guess it makes sense to simply start at the beginning. While there are no doubt people at Microsoft who can point to an earlier date than I can, for me--and for most of the world--Windows Vista began on July 25, 2001, less than a month before Microsoft completed Windows XP. On that day, Microsoft publicly confirmed that it had changed its previous plans to follow up XP (codenamed "Whistler") with a major Windows version codenamed Blackcomb. "There will be a Windows release between Windows XP and Blackcomb," a spokesperson for the software giant verified that day. It was codenamed Longhorn and would ship in 2003, Microsoft said. According to reports, planning for the Longhorn release began the previous May when the Windows XP development process started winding down.

Longhorn, at the time, was seen as a minor interim release between XP and Blackcomb. Indeed, as I exclusively revealed that year, even the name Longhorn was an indication of the product's status: While both Whistler and Blackcomb are humongous ski resorts in British Columbia, Longhorn is the name of a bar between the two mountains. "To get to Blackcomb from Whistler," a friend from Microsoft told me at the time, "you have to go by Longhorn."

The very existence of Longhorn first came about when a friend of mine from Microsoft, Tom Laemmel, mistakenly blurted out the code name to an eWeek reporter. Annoyingly, he did this just one day after meeting with me to discuss Windows XP Release Candidate 2 (RC2), a fact I have jokingly reminded him of again and again. I'm over it. Seriously. (To be fair to Tom, if he had told me that codename previously, I never would have reported it anyway. So maybe it worked out fine in the end anyway. Maybe.)

Anyway, for most of the rest of 2001, there wasn't much to say about Longhorn. Most people were consumed by the then-new Windows XP, and of course XP succumbed to a major UPnP vulnerability that December, setting off a series of events that would later culminate in Microsoft's Trustworthy Computing initiative, Windows XP Service Pack 2 (SP2), and a series of Microsoft product delays that continue to this day.


Amusingly, the first Vista delay came in April 2002. At that time, Microsoft group vice president Jim Allchin revealed that Longhorn wouldn't ship until at least 2004. "We are going to have a reasonable development cycle for this version," he said. "Oftentimes we try to spin things too fast and spend all our time getting beta feedback and not enough innovation as I would have wanted."

By this time, Longhorn was melding into a significant release and not the minor upgrade Microsoft initially promised. At the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) that year, Microsoft said that Longhorn would include new managed APIs, a new graphics architecture (then called "Longhorn Graphics Architecture"), peer-to-peer technologies, and new SQL Server-based storage technologies. Tellingly, however, Jim Allchin barely mentioned Longhorn during his WinHEC keynote that year.

The early history of Longhorn was marred by a number of fake videos and screenshots reputing to show what the upcoming OS would look like. No doubt inspired by Microsoft's high level descriptions of the product, an alarming number of people turned out fakes, and I spent a good deal of time that year debunking them. I guess that's what happens when you don't have code to play with.

In June, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates announced, via a Fortune Magazine cover story, that he was spending about half his time working on Longhorn, which was now described as a major Windows release. "We'd been talking about doing a lot of things separately for a long time, but the mood was like, 'Hey, this incremental stuff is okay, but let's do something more dramatic,'" Gates said of the OS. "And [Microsoft CEO] Steve [Ballmer] said, 'That means synchronizing the release.' And I said, 'Isn't that risky?' And Steve said, 'But isn't it obvious we should do this?'" Gates called the suddenly complex Longhorn "[the equivalent of] many moon shots."

In the article, Gates described Longhorn as a complete overhaul of Windows, with the following features:

  • A new consolidated Windows storage scheme that ensures documents, contacts, email, Instant Messaging (IM) buddy lists, calendar, and other data are all stored in the same way and can easily be searched together. The number one question Longhorn will answer, Gates says, is "Where's my stuff?"

  • Technology that protects users from distractions by screening phone calls and email.

  • Software to track you down when you're out of the office and forward calls and email to you automatically.

  • A way to arrange conference calls and online meetings.

  • The ability to let consumers easily set up Web sites and email lists to keep people they care about informed and up-to-date.

  • Provide users with secure access to their important work data from home by using any connected device.

Gates also told Fortune that there were 10 major Longhorn scenarios, including People, Annotation, Real Time Communications, Storage, Authentication and Security, and New Look. Separate teams at the software giant were working on each scenario, but Gates was overseeing the entire project and meeting frequently with each team. It sounded very exciting, though it's somewhat sobering to compare this information with the version of Windows Vista that Microsoft is shipping this month.

Finally, in October 2002, I got my hands on an early Longhorn alpha version, build 3683 (see my overview). It still looked a lot like Windows XP, go figure, but included a few interesting features, some of which did make it into the final version (new Explorer views) and some that did not (the original Sidebar).

In November 2002, Microsoft claimed it would not ship a Windows Server release in tandem with Longhorn. At that point, of course, Windows Server 2003 had yet to ship (and would in fact undergo two more name changes) and it seemed like Longhorn would arrive much more quickly than a future Windows Server release. "Customer requirements dictate our release strategies and timing for Windows products," a Microsoft representative told me at the time. "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. Another major release of Windows Server will follow [Windows Server 2003]; it is code named Blackcomb."

Needless to say, those plans changed very quickly.

Later that month, a long-time informant began kicking out some serious insider news and I got my first peek at Microsoft's internal schedule for Longhorn. Here's what it looked like at the time:

M1 Release 12/7/2001
M2 Code-complete 7/26/2002
M2 Release 8/30/2002
Longhorn RI into MAIN 10/16/2002
M3 Release 11/13/2002
Beta 2003
RTM 2004

I also received a bunch of technical information about Avalon, the "next-generation platform for Windows client applications. It combines the best features of the Web such as ease of deployment and rich mix of application and content with the power of the Win32 development platform to enable developers to build a new breed of applications that are robust and take real advantage of the connectivity, storage, and graphical capabilities of the modern PC. Avalon is not just about User Interface and Rich Graphics, although that is an important part. The overarching goal of Avalon is that it offers a common managed code exposure to all the capabilities of the Personal Computer including storage, communications, documents, multimedia etc." Avalon would be vector-based and merge the capabilities of the GDI+ and DirectX display technologies. What's interesting is that at this early stage, Avalon encompassed features we'd eventually associate with Indigo (Web services and networking) and WinFS (data services). Microsoft clearly eventually decided that it needed to break off a lot of that functionality into different projects.

Continue with Road to Gold: The Long Road to Windows Vista Part 2: 2003...

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